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Mind's Eye 

A Liberal Arts Journal 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 

Woolf and McClintock and the Nature of Cyberspace 

By Elizabeth Lambert 

Reading a 15th-century English Woman's Life: 

The Character of Margaret Paston As Revealed Through Her Letters 

By Rosanne Fleszar Denhard 

Poetry by: 

Rosemary Starace, Cynthia Richardson and Peter Filkins 

Appendix Seven 

Fiction by Robert Abel 

Of Roads and a Pasture: 

The Genesis of Two Poems by Robert Frost 
By Lea Bertani Newman 

Fall 1999 

Mind's Eye 

A Liberal Arts Journal 

FALL 1999 

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 

Editorial Board 

Tony Gengarelly 
Managing Editor 

Bob Bishoff 
Sumi Coliigan 

Steve Green 

Ben Jacques 

Leon Peters 
Maynard Setder 
Meera Tamaya 

© 1999 The Mind's Eye 
ISSN 1098-0512 

The Mind's Eye, a journal of scholarly and creative work, is published 
twice annually by the faculty of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 
While emphasizing articles of scholarly merit. The Mind's Eye focuses 
on a general communicalion of ideas of interest to a liberal arts col- 
lege. We welcome expository essays, including reviews, as well as 
fiction, poetry and an. Please refer to the inside back cover for a list 
of writer's guidelines. 

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 
Formerly North Adams Stale College 
375 Church Street 
North Adams, MA 01247-4100 

Visit our web site:>™ 

Mind's Eye 

Fall 1999 

Editor's File 4 

Woolf and McClintock and the Nature of 

By Elizabeth Lambert 5 

The Death of Chekhov 

Poetry by Peter Filkins 20 

Ed's Barn 

Poetry by Cynthia Richardson 21 

The Smooth-Flowing Cursive Forms 
of Childhood 

Poetry by Rosemary Starace 22 

Reading a 15th-century English Woman's 
Life: The Character of Margaret Paston As 
Revealed Through Her Letters 

By Rosanne Fleszar Denhard 24 

Appendix Seven 

Fiction by Robert Abel 42 

Of Roads and a Pasture: The Genesis of 
Two Poems by Robert Frost 

By Lea Bertani Newman 55 

Letters 61 

Contributors 62 

Editor's File 

As we anticipate the turning of the millennial clock, 1 am 
inspired to suggest that the contributions to this edition of 
The Mind's Eye relate to this transitional moment in unique and 
interesting ways. Our lead piece by Elizabeth Lambert, winner of the 
Faculty Lecture Series Award, explores the creativity of science as it touches 
upon the imaginative tradition of the novel and the futuristic concepts of 
cyberspace. Robert Abel's compelling short fiction involves human en- 
counters with issues of immigration that will continue to be social and 
historical realities well into the next thousand years. The life of a 15th- 
century woman takes on a remarkably enduring significance in Rosanne 
Denhard's literary-historical account of Margaret Paston, Lea Newman's 
lirerary critique provides some contemporary insight into Robert Frost's 
use of timeless metaphors in "The Road Not Taken" and "The Pasture." 
Within these pages, the living tradition of poetry moves forward into the 
new millennium with the creations of Peter Filkins, Cynthia Richardson 
and Rosemary Starace. 

The Fall 1999 issue also inaugurates the third year of publication of 
the "new" Mind's Eye, The magazine enjoys a robust circulation of about 
1000 copies per issue and continues to grow as an important addition to 
our own campus and the surrounding community. We are, of course, 
very grateful for support from the college — President Thomas Aceto and 
the Board of Trustees — and from our colleagues, on and off campus, whose 
contributions to these pages have been essential to the life of the journal. 
And, as the days grow shorter and memory longer, we think once more 
of Charlie Mclsaac, fonnei Mind's Eye editor, and are grateful, too, for his 
lile, his commitment to human endeavor and to the quality of the writ- 
ten word that are, in many ways, the legacy of this journal. 

Tony Gengarelly 
Managing Editor 

4 The Mind's Eye 

Woolf and McClintock 
and the Nature of 


In Virginia Woolf 's 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, the artist Lily 
Briscoe asks young Andrew Ramsay what his father's books are 
about. When his answer. "'Subject and object and the nature of 
reality,'" needs clarification, he suggests she "'think of a kitchen table . . . 
when you're not there" (38). Lily, however, imagines the table "lodged 
now in ... a pear tree, lor they had reached the orchard" (38). Then, 
"with a painful effort of concentration," Lily demonstrates one of Ihe 
reasons the coming cyberworld of virtual reality may not be the revolu- 
tion in consciousness it is often heralded as: "She focused her mind, 
not upon the silver-bossed bark of the tree, or upon its fish-shaped leaves, 
but upon a phantom kitchen table . . . which stuck there, its four legs in 
the air" (38). 

The table in the pear tree, "this seeing oi angular essences, this re- 
ducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and 
silver to a white deal four-legged table (and it was a mark ol the linest 
minds so to do)" (38), is one of the more playfuf moments in a process 
Lily's visual mind enacts throughout the novel, as did Woolf's visual 
mind throughout her life. Not only does she demonstrate the mind's 
ability to experience what isn't materially present, but she places the 
methods and terms of a discourse, such as philosophy, into contexts 
that comment on the limits of the discourse. 

The Mind's Eye 5 

Elizabeth Lambert 

Several recent critics have done the same for the narratives currently in 
the process of creating the electronicaUy mediated world labeled cyberspace, 
which, according to one of those critics, is the latest version of an ancient 
urge "to exteriorize our own neurological drama" (Porush 551). Like that 
other longed-for and dreaded nonplace, the afterlife, cyberspace is a kind 
of potential around which mythologies have encrusted themselves and are 
helping make manifest. Severat of those narratives were interrogated in 
the Fail 1994 special issue of Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, 
and Technology. As I read the issue I found myself exteriorizing my own 
neurological drama by constantly marking the margins with the names of 
two brilliant women who were near contemporaries. Neither was men- 
tioned in the issue, but both can act as guides through the various worlds 
without end promised by cyberspace: British writer Virginia Woolf (1882- 
1941) and American biologist Barbara McClintock (1902-1992). 

Woolf and McClintock never crossed paths and, while it is possible 
McClintock heard of Woolf, it is unlikely Woolf knew of McClintock. Vet 
both had similar, extraordinary powers of concentration and visualization 
and both took communication as a focus. Woolf, who wrote nine novels 
and volume after volume of essays, short fiction, diaries and letters, ex- 
plored language itself. McClintock explored the genetic coding of com, a 
staple of genetics research. Her questions and approaches increasingly iso- 
lated her from her colleagues to the point that her discovery of transposi- 
tion, which eventually won her a Nobel Prize, was initially misunderstood 
by some and posed a puzzle for those who did understand but couldn't 
connect it to accepted ideas. 

Transposition suggests that certain genes can change position on a chro- 
mosome, enabling the DNA of a cell to rearrange itself in response to signals 
from the cell environment, in a kind of feedback mechanism. According to 
McClintock's biographer, Evelyn Pox Keller, her colleagues lacked the con- 
text needed to understand the significance of her discovery. In A Feeling for 
the Organism, Keller presents McClintock's story in part "as a book about 
language — about worlds of discourse that operate to shape the growth of 
specific areas of research . . ." and as a study "of the relations between 
creativity and validation, between individual and community, and between 
one community's conception of science and another's . . ." <xv). 

As Keller points out, in everyday life "the level of shared vision 
required for people to cooperate is usually met. But science and art 
alike make tougher demands on intersubjectivity: Both are crucially 
dependent on internal visions, committed to conveying what the ev- 
eryday eye cannot see" (150). Both Woolf's and McClintock's work made 
demands that kept them out of the mainstream while keeping the prob- 

6 The Mind's Eye 

Elizabeth Lambert 

lem of communicating across different contexts central to their lives. Keller 
expresses McClintock's motives with words that apply to Wool! as well: 
"MeClintodc's feeling for the organism ... is a longing to embrace the 
world in its very being, through reason and beyond" (199). Although 
Woolf and McClintock were artists on different sides of a disciplinary 
divide, McClintock's words explain a method she shared with Woolf: to 
"hear what the material has to say to you" (198). Together, the writer 
who probed the worlds of language and the scientist who nurtured rela- 
tionships with the material world provide a means of illuminating cur- 
rent debates that stretch along a continuum from those who conceptual- 
ize cyberspace as a revolution in consciousness to others who "explore 
the ways in which virtual realities conserve and incorporate rather than 
overthrow ... the Platonist division of the world into the physical and 
metaphysical in which ideal forms are valued over material content" 
(Markley, "Introduction" 437). 

What I hope to do, after a look at two cybercritics of Configurations, is 
to give McClintock and Woolf the opportunity to elaborate a request by 
the issue's editor, Robert Markley. He asks us to question the values and 
assumptions of virtual technologies, and suggests we do so by investigat- 
ing the real -world contexts in which the technology is conceptualized, 
created and distributed. Woolf and McClintock provide insight into that 
conceptual context of subject, object and the nature of reahty. 

The term "cyberspace" came into the world through fiction, the now- 
mythologized 1984 novel Neuromancer, by William Gibson, who envi- 
sioned it as a "consensual hallucination" and a pretty awful place. 1 Since 
then, cyberspace has come to mean many things: at a minimum, the 
electronically mediated "space" created by cybernetic technologies, which, 
in the current real world, include some computer-networked games with 
many players in different locations, and virtual-reality gear, through which 
humans literally plug themselves into massive feedback loops that simu- 
late the material world and evoke the appropriate physical sensations. 

Pointing out that when concepts of cyberspace include "everything 
from e-mail to GameBoy cartridges" ("Introduction" 434), they be- 
come too broad to be useful, Markley cites several definitions rang- 
ing from an emphasis on the technology to an emphasis on the mysti- 
cal. Michael Benedikt, editor of Cyberspace: First Steps, calls cyberspace 
"a globally networked, computer-sustained, computer-accessed, and 
computer-generated multidimensional, artificial, or "virtual" reality'" 
(qtd. in "Introduction" 434). The definition from Marcos Novak's ar- 
ticle in Cyberspace: First Steps emphasizes both the "space" and the hu- 
man sensory system that interact through technology; 

The Mind's Eye 7 

Elizabeth Lambert 

Cyberspace is a completely spatialized visualiiation of all in- 
formation in global information processing systems, along path- 
ways provided by present and future communication networks, 
enabling full copresence and interaction of multiple users, 
allowing input and output from and to the full human sen- 
sorium, permitting simulations of real and virtual realities, 
remote data collection and control through telepresence, and 
total integration and intercommunication with a full range of 
intelligent products and environments in real space, (qtd. in 
"Introduction" 434-35) 

Novak adds that cyberspace is '"the place where conscious dreaming 
meets subconscious dreaming, a landscape of rational magic, of mysti- 
cal reasoning, the locus and triumph of poetry over poverty (435). 
Currently, in environments in real space, better living through cyberspace 
is not yet realized. 

A long list of the good things that cyberspace will bring to life, culled 
from various papers and presentations, appears in a Configurations ar- 
ticle by David Porush. 2 A small sample includes renovating human re- 
lations, providing universal education, "bypassing the infirmities of the 
body," "liberating the mind from its inevitably neurotic relationship to 
the body," providing a new frontier, allowing for immortality, creating 
Utopian workplaces and making it possible to have sex without bodies 
(553-54). In several, il not all, of these potentials can be heard the 
"Platonist division of the world into the physical and metaphysical in 
which ideal forms are valued over material content" ("Introduction" 
437). The encompassing claims, the ones that promise cyberspace to be 
more than just interactive TV with smell and touch, are claims to a kind 
of metaphysical break from the past, through which revolutionized 
human consciousness will be "freed" from the body, or at least have a 
totally different, and more positive, relationship to the troublesome body 
and various material and immaterial worlds. 

According to this revolutionary view, the major problem will be equal- 
izing access to the technology. However, one of the common points made 
by contributors to the Configurations issue is that a critique of access prob- 
lems is not enough. According to Markley, "The blind spot of many cri- 
tiques of virtual technologies lies in their linked rhetoric of progress as 
natural and inevitable, and their acceptance of the view that we are living 
in revolutionary limes in which technology can intervene in subj ectivity in 
ways undreamt of prior to the twentieth century. ... It is only by situating 
cyberspace in the contexts it seeks to transcend that we can begin to dream 
of a different kind of 'real'" ("Introduction* 438-39). 

8 The Mind's Eye 

Elizabeth Lambert 

The context Markley provides examines the mathematics that promises 
to transcend the mind/body split and create a shared imagination through 
virtual reality technology He characterizes cyberspace as "the ultimate capi- 
talist fantasy because it promises to exploit our own desires as the inex- 
haustible material of consumption" ("Boundaries" 504) in the boundless 
territory of cyberspace, now that we've greatly ruined our material territo- 
ries. Markley says the narrative celebrating a virtual reality that "offers the 
alluring fiction of limitless possibilities and connections'' ("Boundaries" 499) 
supports the view that cyberspace will transcend the mind/body split, [n 
this narrative, the virtual world offers a nonhierarchical space where the 
individual becomes a self-creating, self-observing whole; the virtual world 
is a space in which one's imagination becomes objective and shared with 
others. In contrast, real reality in this narrative is devalued as an imperfect 
state in which the individual is alienated from self and environment. 

The mathematics developed to aflow for "instantaneous feedback of 
billions of bits of information that can be translated into direct sensory 
input" is based on a type of logic called boundary logic, developed in part 
by mathematician William Brieken, with debts to Plato andLeibni2 ("Bound- 
aries" 490) . According to Markley, the math is traditionally Platonist, based 
on the assumption that the universe is computable and that mathematics 
reveals its structure. Boundary logic uses the concepts of calling (making a 
mark or creating a perspective) and crossing (changing the perspective). 
The symbol of the mark is described by educator Meredith Brieken as '"a 
cluster of attributes ... a distinction and the observer making the distinc- 
tion ... a symbol and a process The mark exists in a context of continu- 
ous space; it generates systems and determines their functioning"' (qtd. in 
"Boundaries" 490). Markley summarizes the mark as "both a mutational 
device and a metaphysical marker of one's unique location in the 'continu- 
ous context' of space. . . . Form, identity and value are thus generated by 
the intentional, Ur-stalemems of boundary logic: 1 mark, therefore I am; I 
am the mark, therefore I am" ("Boundaries" 491). 

An individual operating in cyberspace is a kind of updated monad — a 
point of intention that creates a unity of space and identity by making 
symbols, so that, in William Brieken 's words, '"space (and experience) are 
pervasive rather than dualistic . . .both/and inclusions rather than either/or 
dichotomies'" (qtd. in "Boundaries" 495). Cyberspace comes with the im- 
plicit promise that the "seff" created will not suffer the fragmentation and 
alienation that most selves experience in real reality. This is not just a mar- 
keting strategy but a metaphysical aspect of boundary logic. 

Markley points out that cyberspace, then, incorporates the oppositional 
logic it supposedly disrupts. An individual is either calling or crossing, be- 

The Minds Eye 9 

Elizabeth Lambert 

coming whole in virtual space or remaining fragmented and alienated in 
real space. The "self" that Markley sees being created is that of "a thor- 
oughly efficient desiring machine" ("Boundaries" 504), becoming trained 
to participate in the "reproduction and satisfaction of endless desire" 
( "Boundaries" 507) . The promise of becoming one's real sell through tech- 
nology also ironically relies on reinforcing the alienation it supposedly elimi- 
nates: The relationship of the user to the technology, which provides the 
ground for the new world, is embedded in real reality and not extended 
from a virtual cloud, like God's finger. But entrance into cyberspace tends 
to suppress a user's consciousness that the illusion is embedded in the ma- 
terial world, since "given its ideational roots in a mathematical monad- 
ology . . . cyberspace lacks a means to analyze the alienation, the ruptures, 
that it would heal" ("Boundaries" 502). What Markley calls "the enabling 
myth ol cyberspace" is "the desire to master technology so that it can give us 
forms of power and pleasure that transcend the conditions of their techno- 
logical production" ("Boundaries" 502-03). 

David Porush situates the concept of cyberspace in a long history 
reaching back beyond the development of writing, seeing it not as a 
radical break from the past but, in part, as a postmodern attempt "to 
create a positive alternative to the rational and imperial discourses of 
science" (540). He examines the persistent "irrational, Utopian and 
metaphysical imaginations" being ascribed the "still-mythical place called 
cyberspace" (540). Part of the reason it is still mythical, he says, is that 
the more encompassing claims about cyberspace call for an "irrational 
technology," one not based on any current mathematics, that can actu- 
ally connect with the irrational aspects of the mind — not just be a kind 
of extensive but ultimately rational playground for the mind, based on 
the binary logic of current circuitry. Since rationality implies correla- 
tion to the material world, even one of the main promises of cyberspace 
is not rational, to fool the brain into thinking that it is experiencing 
material reality that does not exist. 

Porush compares the possible emergence of an irrational technology 
from our current technology to the accommodations made by Pythagorean 
mathematics, based on rational numbers, after the discovery of irrational 
numbers in the fifth century e.c.e. Irrational numbers threatened to de- 
stroy the Pythagoreans, a kind of mystical cult whose members believed 
that mathematics was commensurable with the material world — that all 
mathematics, the invisible ideal, had physical manifestations, and that to 
work out proving statements about geometric forms was "a means of com- 
munion with God's mind" (Porush 542). Irrational numbers, which weren't 
commensurate, threatened Pythagorean cosmology. Hippasus, a member 

10 The Mind's Eye 

Elizabeth Lumber! 

of the Pythagorean Society, was the one who discovered that the square 
root of two could not be manipulated to express an integer or a ratio of an 
integer. The story goes that after this discovery, his friends in the society 
sent him on a sailing voyage, after which lie was never seen again. 

The person credited with saving the system. Eudoxus of Cnidus, de- 
vised "a physical theory of the irrational" that could accommodate irra- 
tional numbers by imagining them as points on a line between the points 
that stood for rational numbers. If rational numbers are evenly spaced on 
an. imaginary line, then irrational numbers a re those that fill the spaces in 
between. Lines and points were accepted abstractions in Pythagorean 
geometry, but usually numbers were considered precursors to the line. 
Eudoxus reversed that supposition, adding a layer of abstraction that ap- 
parently satisfied those concerned. 

According to Porush, the small Forays into cyberspace provided through 
current technology, which is based on rational, binary logic, are some- 
what like Eudoxus' solution, to an extent allowing for the irrational 
through a rational system. For the mind to fully extend through technol- 
ogy into cyberspace, he says, a technology based on an irrational math- 
ematics is needed, one that accommodates human irrationality rather 
than working reasonably despite it. Porush finds in some postmodern 
literature and some video games and cybernetic literature what he calls 
"eudoxical discourse," the linguistic parallel to Eudoxus' invention in 
mathematics: "satisfactory synthesis between the language of reason and 
the language of the irrational" (547). 

In the work of Gaston Bachelard from the 1 930s Porush finds a source 
of an irrational epistemology he says is now developing in literature, and 
to some extent in science. "Bachelard's thesis is that the sciences are the 
source of epistemological innovation, not only in facts but in methods," 
an innovation that derives "from intuition and induction rather than 
deterministic positivism, empiricism and deduction" (549). Bachelard 
associated the irrational with the real. The opposition is between ra- 
tionality and reality, with rationality finding its expression in science- 
science simplifies the real and complicates the rational. "Realism means 
acknowledging the unknowable complexity of natural phenomena — 
their 'irrationality' including, presumably, their metaphysical proper- 
ties — unmediated by instrumentalities or theories or models" (549). 

According to Porush, models that try to imitate the brain through 
rational operations simplify the real, complicate the rational and miss 
the fact that the brain/mind already creates a virtual reality as it 
encounters the unknowable complexity of natural phenomena . It "takes 
physicai impressions from an irrational, inchoate reality and transmutes 

The Mind's Eye 11 

Elizabeth Lambert 

them into thoughts, sensations, and the will to action. , . . [T]he brain . . . 
is a metaphor machine, operating continuously to carry meaning be- 
tween realms that are in the largest sense thoroughly incommensu- 
rable' (550). This "urge to exteriorize our own neurological drama" is 
not new, but "can be found in any cultural moment when we confuse 
the metaphorical with the cognitive, or rather, the moment when we rec- 
ognize that the cognitive is the metaphorical" { 5 5 1 ) , An d that, says Porush, is 
his definition of transcendence. 

Barbara McClintock's mind appears to have been one that carried 
on an unusual eudoxical discourse within itself, through her ability to 
understand by literally seeing, at times making sight and insight syn- 
onymous. "As if without distinguishing between the two, she knew by 
seeing and saw by knowing" (Keller 148) . McClintock seemed to sharpen 
both sight and insight with her awareness that not only is the cognitive 
the metaphorical but insight into a reality is not that reality, a simple 
but important distinction, one that she thought got lost when scientists 
regarded symbols they constructed as aspects of reality. She is not unique, 
but what is so helpful in this case is her reliance on her senses, particu- 
larly vision, to understand the workings of a material entity, corn, 
through a relationship in which she allowed the real, in Bachelard's 
terms, to encompass the rational— and managed, after 30 years of be- 
ing misunderstood, to win a Nobel Prize. At least pan of her conception 
of transposition was finally corroborated by those who were led to re- 
consider her ideas after questions and methods they did understand led 
to similar conclusions. 3 

Pox Keller characterizes the 30 years of failure in communication as 
a gap that was unbridgeable in the 1950s and 60s. McClintock's meth- 
ods as well as the implications of her findings were not translatable into 
the conceptual framework of the time, especially since her articles were 
hard to lollow, even for those in her field. McClintock combined a pas- 
sion for detail with a commitment to understanding a whole organism 
in relation to its history and environment. For her, the smallest detail 
provided keys to the larger whole, an approach increasingly out of step 
with experimental microbiology. Yet she was a believer in the experi- 
mental method, who once analogized the brain to a computer and who, 
ironically, considered her body a kind of nuisance she had to drag 
around — ironic, since she was also a deeply intuitive observer who re- 
lied on her senses. She rejected the label "mystic," yet her insights came 
in part through her ability not only to form friendshiplike relationships 
with her objects of study but to dissolve the boundaries between seeing 

12 The Mind's Eye 

Elizabeth Lambert 

and envisioning, self and other, to the point that at times her concen- 
tration was so great, she forgot her own name. 

McClintock's experience investigating the chromosomes of a type of 
mold, neurospora, suggests why others with a less strong connection be- 
tween sight and insight could find her reasoning hard to follow. In a story 
reminiscent of both Newton and the Buddha, McCIintock sat under a 
eucalyptus tree in quiet reflection one day when she was troubled by her 
inability to detect the chromosomes of neurospora through a microscope. 
When she returned to the microscope, she could see the chromosomes 
(Keller 14S). As Keller points out, gaining Insight after moments of re- 
flection is not unusual, but altering eyesight is. McCIintock remarked 
that the more she worked with the chromosomes, the bigger they got. "1 
wasn't outside, 1 was down there. 1 was part of the system. ... I even was 
able to see the internal parts of the chromosomes. ... ft surprised me 
because 1 actually felt as if 1 were right down there and these were my 
friends'" (117). Later she added, "'As you look at these things, they 
become part of you. And you forget yourself" (117). 

Throughout the years, McCIintock did train a few others to see what 
she saw. Following her fine of thought, biologist Evelyn Witkin, for in- 
stance, came to '"actually see the geoes turning on and off" (Keller 
126, 149). What kepi this visiun/envisioning from being a consensual 
hallucination in the cyberspace sense are the standards of proof 
McCIintock was able to meet and her insistence that concepts about 
reality, even her concepts, are not reality, in her mind a satisfactory 
synthesis of the irrationaf and rational produced insights that she ex- 
pressed in the rational language of science, while allowing for moments 
when she actually seemed to "embrace the world in its very being, 
through reason and beyond" (199). 

The material and immaterial still function as categories that describe 
experience, though, like many other people, f think the difference is in 
context, not. in substance. A problem with some stories about cyberspace 
is not that they erase a definite line between the material and the imma- 
terial, which T don't think exists, but that they seem to draw it. more 
boldly. The more excessive promises about new forms of consciousness 
(as if all currently available lorms have been tried and used up) rely on 
pretending that the more manifestly immaterial cyberworld can exist in- 
dependent of its basis in the more manifestly material world of bodies, 
silicon chips and power plants. 

McClintock's emphasis on a relationship with a material entity unpro- 
grammed by humans, which she gained shareable knowledge of through 

The Mind's Eye 13 

Elizabeth Lambert 

her senses, in moments of what Porush might call transcendence, leads 
me to a question asked by others in different contexts. If cyberspace is an 
idealized space characterized by the illusion that actual materiality is not 
present (thereby suppressing consciousness of the technology that takes 
one there), that conceives of the user as a self-creating/self-observing 
whole, and that provides program-limited manipulation of one's sensory 
system, what does self-creation in cyberspace do to the ability to know 
about oneself or the world? 

Virginia Woolf's various approaches to reading, writing and reality 
provide a way of keeping that question an active part of creating a self 
in cyberspace. Woolf had a lot to say about reality, often stressing the 
impossibility and undesirability of trying to nail it down, while not 
abandoning the concept that there is such a thing as reality outside 
the consensual cliches of human consciousness. What follows here 
just touches the surface of the ways that Woolf's work addresses two 
concerns of Configuration's cybercritics. The first is Markley's concern 
about staying awake to the contrivances of cyberspace. As he empha- 
sizes in his summary of conclusions made by Configurations contribu- 
tors Porush and Kathleen Hayles, "This recognition that cyberspace is 
a fiction — a narrative that creates a coherence it would like to imagine 
'really' exists — is crucial to any theoretically sophisticated critique of 
the limitations of this consensual hallucination and the discontents it 
imperfectly masks" ("Introduction" 435). The second (or maybe second 
and third) elaborates on Porush 's contentions that in making sense out 
of inchoate reality, the mind already creates a kind of virtual world and 
that cyberspace does not make a radical break from the past but, in part, 
is a postmodern attempt "to create a positive alternative to the rational 
and imperial discourses of science" (540). 

For the first concern, I call on Pamela Caughie's work on Woolf as a 
critic. Many of Woolf's fictional works require a reader to remain con- 
scious of how a piece of writing and a mind make meaning together, 
reiterating her critical works' advocacy of active reading. For the sec- 
ond concern, I turn to Gillian Beer's reading of To the Lighthouse as a 
novef in which "the fictitiousness of the separation between object and 
subject . . . is passionately explored" (30). 

In Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism, Caughie asks a question Woolf's 
writing elicits, a more conceptual version of the table in the pear tree. 
"Reality, Woolf would show us, is that which obtains between consent- 
ing adults in a particular discursive situation. Therefore she asks us what 
we are consenting to and how our consent is achieved" (176). Lesi any- 
one read this as a statement of relativism, Caughie adds in a note that 

14 The Mind s Eye 

Elizabeth Lambert 

"this is not to say that language constitutes the world or that there is 
nothing outside the text. Rather, it is to say we can engage with and 
negotiate our world only by means of a particular discourse" (191). 

Wood's critical essays, according to Caughie, emphasize the func- 
tion a text has for a reader, analyzing the changing relationships among 
the world, text and readers, and emphasizing the instability of each of 
those terms, She cites Woolf in 'Phases of Fiction" on the inadequacy of 
basing literary criticism on a fixed notion of art or life. As Woolf put it: 

But any such verdict must be based upon the supposition that 
"the novel" has a certain character which is now fixed and 
cannot be altered, that "life" has a certain limit which can be 
defined. And it is precisely this conclusion that the novels we 
have been reading tend to upset. ("Phases" 144) 

Woolf, says Caughie, "is less concerned with the relation of the fic- 
tion to the actual world or the writer or the reader than with the kinds 
of reality established through the fiction" (174-75). In "Phases of 
Fiction" Woolf asks readers to compare how the different realities of 
various narratives are constructed, to avoid the extremes of "some nor- 
mative or ideal standard for criticism on one hand and reducing criti- 
cism to uncontrolled relativism on the other" (Caughie 176). 

Woolf saw several advantages to her approach. One was that readers' 
lives would change if they approached fiction awake to its devices; and, 
as Caughie points out, Woolf valued change. The reader becomes better 
able to see "relations and subtleties which have not been explored" 
(Woolf, "Phases" 145). Most important, in Caughie's view, 

is that the mimetic relation between life and text, where 
"novel and life are laid side by side," is only one possible rela- 
tion in fiction, not the defining one. ... To change our ways 
of talking about the novel is to change our ways of conceiv- 
ing the world. And the "prime distinction" Woolf brings out 
in her different phases of fiction lies in "the changed attitude 
toward reality." (Caughie 177) 

By grounding critical reading in "changing purposes and shared activ- 
ity .. . fWoolf] discloses her aims and her methods to remind us that 
the knowledge we gain and the pleasure we take in reading are bound 
up with our motives, methods and interests" (181). This method of 
reading takes us hack to Markley's request to question the values and 
assumptions of virtual technologies by investigating their real-world 
contexts. The relation between the user of a technology and the world 

The Mind's Eye 15 

Elizabeth Lambert 

being created through it calls for a recognition of our "motives, meth- 
ods and interests," as well as a consciousness of "changing purposes and 
shared activity." 

To the Lighthouse foregrounds this interpretive process by making the 
narrative's binding thread the motives, methods and interests of the artist, 
Lily Briscoe. Lily spends two summers, ten years apart, as a guest at the 
Ramsay family's summer home in the Hebrides, where she paints while 
brooding over problems of representation. According to Gillian Beer, To the 
Lighthouse is Woolf 's only novel in which "the power of philosophical think - 
ingand its limitations [isl openly a theme" (31). Beer calls To the Lighthouse 
a "post-symbolist novel" because it both uses and questions symbolism 
and because "there is a constant unrest about the search after a perma- 
nence which places humanity at the center" (41). Lily Briscoe and the 
narrative contend with the separation of subject and object and the nature 
of reality within a kind of elegy in which Woolf wanted to both "honour 
her obligations to family history and yet freely dispose of that history" (30). 
As an elegy, which lets go of the past by turning it into language, the novel 
"brings into question our reliance on symbols to confer value" (30). 

The Ramsay family is loosely based on Woolf's own — an intelligent, 
self-sacrificing and secretly but deeply pessimistic woman married to a 
moody, demanding, intellectual patriarch, and their many children. In the 
first section, the family and assorted guests, including Lily, spend their last 
summer at the home before World War One. The second section is an 
extraordinary description of the house as it deteriorates in the ten years the 
Ramsays are away. In the last section, Mr. Ramsay, two resentful teenage 
children, Lily and a few others return, all of them disoriented by the death 
of Mrs. Ramsay, mentioned parenthetically in the second section, Although 
the narrative voice floats in and out of characters' minds, Lily, with her 
painting and her yearning for a deep connection with both die live and the 
dead Mrs. Ramsay, is tire novel's anchor. 

Beer reads Lily's process as Woolf's "meditation" on her father's interpre- 
tation of philosopher David Hume. Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, is the model 
for the novel's Mr, Ramsay, a philosopher constantly tortured by the passing 
of time and the problem of representing reality when, as Hume put it "'a 
substance is entirely different from a perception. We have, therefore, no idea 
of substance'" (qtd. in Beer 37). Beer points out that while Lily's mind at 
times lends to turn the general (a table) into the particular and substantial 
(the kitchen table upside down in a pear tree), the process of the picture she 
paints of Mrs. Ramsay and her youngest child moves toward abstraction. As 
Lily's painting becomes more abstract, the narrative, according to Beer, "does 
move away from the burdened authority of symbolic objects" (38). 

16 The Mind's Eye 

Elizabeth Lambert 

That move away (Woolf's fiction rarely "progresses" and all resolu- 
tions are impermanent) approaches a problem posed by Hume, who saw 
"the attempt to escape from the self into a wider world to free ourselves 
of perceptual constraints as inevitably doomed" (Beer 38), a problem that 
cyberspace promises to banish. Woolf makes no such promises, but in the 
second section of the novel, "Time Passes," she plays with the problem. 
"Time Passes" describes the materia] world of the Ramsays' deteriorat- 
ing summer house through "a kind of writing which obliterates any 
suggestion of a single perceiver. Language draws attention to its own an- 
thropomorphism, its habit of remaking objects in the image of human 
perception . . ," (Beer 39). "Time Passes" sees "the object through time" 
using "a discourse which points to human absence" (Beer 42), an ap- 
proach Wooif used to different effects in later novels in her attempt to 
explore what she called a world without a self. 

If all this sounds technical and bloodless. To the Lighthouse depends on 
the language of physical sensation to evoke in the reader a sense not only 
of rime passing in a world without humans but also of grief, ecstasy, long- 
ing and other emotions as almost natural forces that blow through and 
around the characters. These forces swirl together pa rticuiarly in Lify's grief 
and driving creativity as she experiences the novel's questioning "of all . . . 
attempts to propose a stable accord between inner and outer, past and 
present, to seai the contradiction of subject and object through symbols" 
(Beer 42). Lily's process also allows a reader in the right frame of mind to 
experience as well as read about the instability of subject, object and sym- 
bof in response to Woolf's evocative descriptions of physicaf objects, states of 
mind, internal visions and the relations among them, meeting those "tougher 
demands on intersubjectiviiy" required of art and science (Keller 150). 

Even if a reader's capacity for cmpathetic dissolution of the self is lack- 
ing, the logic of Lily's (and Woolf's) an can be followed. Before having 
her most intense experience of the cognitive as the metaphorical, which 
comes in part three of the novel, Lily muses as she paints: "One wanted, 
she thought ... to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply 
that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an 
ecstasy" (300). Painting provides this experience as Lily seesaws between 
subject and object, present and past, the transcendent and the ordinary, 
until these terms hold little meaning. This process, which takes pages, is 
expressed in language similar to that which McClintock would use years 
later to describe her sojourn among chromosomes, including a sense of 
bodilessness and loss of identity. 

While still painting, Lily sees the long-dead Mrs. Ramsay sitting 
and knitting. Mrs. Ramsay literally casts a shadow and her presence 

The Mind's Eye 17 

Elizabeth Lambert 

evokes a terrible longing in Lily that, under the power of that pres- 
ence, "became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with the 
chair, with the table" (300). The ordinary becomes a miracle and the 
visionary becomes ordinary. At the end of the novel, Lily finishes her 
painting with a somewhat abstract stroke that seems to unify its shapes 
and colors so that she can say "I have had my vision* (310). The rest 
of the novel strongly suggests that this vision is not final or all-reveal- 
ing or even in the painting itself, though the physical fact of the com- 
pleted painting seems as important as the process. As Lily gazes at the 
vision of Mrs. Ramsay and finishes her painting, she temporarily awak- 
ens a self rooted in being alive to what "is"— physical world, internal 
visions and external visions. In a sense, she gains her insight through 
"the mind's inevitably neurotic relationship to the body" (Porush 553) 
rather than despite it. 

Although one can be alive to what virtually is by temporarily for- 
getting what really is (and it may be "a mark of the finest minds to do 
so"), a question still arises that I can answer but am glad I cannot 
relinquish: Why bother plugging in, when actual contact with the ac- 
tual world in its seemingly unbounded extensiveness promises so much 
more, without the extra layer of dreaming and forgetfuiness that 
cyberspace encourages? Several novels and films have dramatized the 
dangers of getting lost in computer-generated virtual worlds, which 
always seem to have some diabolical purpose unknown at first to the 
enchanted main characters. Getting out with a real (albeit fictional- 
ized) body in one piece takes enormous amounts of willpower as well 
as fictional gallons of real and virtual blood. I suggest that the chances 
of navigating cyberspace with a real, wakeful mind can be made greater 
by contemplating the paths through various worlds taken by Virginia 
Woolf and Barbara McClintock. 


1 The term "cyberspace" is based on "cybernetics," coined in 1943 by 
Norbert Wiener to mean the study of biological and artificial control 
systems, particularly of how systems regulate themselves. 

2 Among those cited by Markley and Porush as having excessive expec- 
tations are Michael Benedikt, Marcus Novak, Meredith and William 
Bricken, Howard Reingold, Larry McCaffery, Benjamin Woolley. Porush 
also cites himself. 

1& The Mind's Eye 

Elizabeth Lambert 

3 Transposition's relation to cybernetics, an ironic subtext here, is a pa- 
per waiting to be written. 

As I was finishing this paper, I came across three Gary Larson car- 
toons that could have saved me 3,000 words, In one, mathematicians 
have filled a board with an equation in which a mass of terms on the 
left equals zero. "No doubt about it, Ellington, " the caption reads, "we've 
mathematically expressed the purpose of the universe. God, how I love 
the thrill of scientific discovery !" In the next, a scientist is addressed by 
one of his experiments, a man's head in a bottle, connected to tubes 
and a computer. "Oh, professor," says the head, "did I tell you I had 
another out-of-head experience last night?" The best is a triptych of 
another head in a lab, this one without a bottle but connected to a 
computer. After the head wakens and screams, "Oh, my God, Professor 
Higginsl Where's my body?" the professor slaps it. Looking relieved, the 
head says, "Thanks ... I needed that." 

Works Cited 

Beer, Gillian. Virginia Wool/: The Common Ground. Ann Arbor: 

U Michigan F, 1996. 
Caughie, Pamela. Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism. Urbana: 

U Illinois P. 1991. 
Keller, Evelyn Fox. A Feeling for the Organism. New York: 

Freeman, 1983. 

Markfey, Robert. "Boundaries: Mathematics, Alienation, and the Meta- 
physics of Cyberspace." Configurations Fall 1994:485-508. 

. "Introduction." Configurations Fall 1994: 433-40. 

Porush, David. "Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and 
Stephenson's SnowCrash " Configurations Fall 1994: 537-71. 

Woolf, Virginia. "Phases of Fiction." 1929. In Leonard Woolf, ed. Granite 
and Rainbow. New York: Harcourt, 1958. 

, To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1927. 

TheMmd'sEye 19 

The Death of Chekhov 


When Chekhov knew there was no longer any hope, 
his body shot, his lungs reduced to bloody rags, 
he cried "Ich sterbe!" to his German doctor, 
who did the only sensible thing he could think of 

anc! ordered champagne. Slowly the glass emptied, 
Olga looking on. A large black-winged moth 
battered a smoky lampshade, the evening sultry 
in Baden weiler, yet another spa promising cure. 

"It's been so long since I've had champagne," 
whispered Chekhov as the moth slid out a window, 
another bottle popped its cork, and the great writer 
turned on bis side and soon ceased breathing. 

"There were no human voices, no everyday sounds. 
There was only beauty, peace, the grandeur of death," 
Olga later reported, sitting up the whole night through 
to study her husband's face, now serene and knowing. 

Later that day the usual arrangements were made, 
the body transported by train back to Moscow, 
a huge crowd there to greet it, a dirty green van 
marked "Oysters" having brought it from the station. 

Which is to say nothing of Gorky's sense of outrage 
at such vulgarity, or that the crowd mistakenly followed 
the coffin of a General Keller, killed in Manchuria, 
thinking a military band seemed right for the occasion, 

as two lawyers debated the intelligence of their dogs, 
a woman with a parasol smiled at the constable, 
and Chekhov's mother pronounced his only eulogy: 
"What a calamity has struck us. Antosha is no more " 

20 The Mind's Eye 

Ed's Barn 


The field across the road. 
The tall pines at its crest. 
The distant sky mercurial, 
And Ed's old barn 
Were fixtures in the landscape 
Of all my middle years. 

The barn decayed at glacial pace. 
A board pulled loose one year. 
And honeysuckle scaled the walls 
Which then began to lean and cant. 
A tired door escaped its hinge 
And foxes burrowed under beams. 

Each little change provoked a little shock. 
But soon the slightly altered bam 
Became the norm, as last year's 
Barn became to last year's me. 

The barn collapsed one winter night. 
A snow too many got it down. 
I feared its different sdhouette, 
Its store of rotten hay exposed. 
But soon the ruined barn became 
My lodestar fixed and true. 

The night it burned, f watched 
The fire through the chilly pane 
And saw my face in flames. 

The Smooth-Flowing Cursive Forms 
of Childhood 


The big blue ball is a big blue "O." 
The big blue ball is a big blue "O." 

These are the words 

that came into the child's mind 

upon waking — 

when the doorknobs and dressers and her dear toys 

began whispering in the [ailing darkness, 

making themselves again distinct from night; 

when the ball, 

new and so impossibly big 

and flat 

in the half-light, 
yet somehow aglow, 
commanded her sleepy vision. 

ft was as big as a world, she knew. 
A ball as big as the world, 
an "O" as big as the world. 

She understood that she could hug an "O" like that, 
wrap her body around it 
so completely 

that her hands could meet her feet; 

yes, the ball would fill her so completely 

that she, too, would become a sphere, a circle, an "O." 

And out of this swelling feeling, 

she began to make other small round shapes 

with her fingers and her hands. 

22 The Mind's Eye 

little "O" children bouncing and prancing 

on the pillows, 

sporting with each other — 

Then, by some exuberant, if small, miracle 

(which she would never question), 

her knowledge formed itself into a sound— 

a sound so round, 

so eager to be spoken and admired, 

so proud, 

that, like a ping-pong ball, 

it popped right out of her mouth: 


Now the sun was peeking in, 

cue for mommy-dear, 

who, each day, would arrive quietly 

and peer around the door frame, 

revealing first her eyes, 

then her smile, 

and finally her whole self with arms outstretched 

like beams of light. 

"Time to get up, sweetheart!" 

And there would be a big round hug 

(like two links joining in a chain), 

and a promise of Cheerios 

or pancakes. 

Reading a 15th-century 
English Woman's Life: 

The Character of Margaret Paston As 
Revealed Through Her Letters 


he character of Margaret Mautby Paston (d. 1484) of Norfolk, 

as presented through her substantial surviving correspondence 

-A. of 1441 to 1482, is voiced primarily through her many letters to 
her husband and children. 1 The letters to Margaret Paston from her 
husband, John Paston I (1421-1466), also imply a good deal about 
Margaret's character (and John's perception of it), as do the letters from 
others. Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wielhaus, writing on the episto- 
lary genre, observe that "what emerges more clearly and consistently 
from letters than from any other genre employed by medieval women 
is the writer's sense of her own authority" (15), and it is mainly through 
her own strong voice that Margaret Paston reveals her character. 2 As 
Joan M. Ferrante notes, through medieval women's letters we encoun- 
ter writers "aware of themselves as women," writing their own lives, 
"at the center of public life" (3). I maintain that, whether "public" or 
"private, " what is vital is that throu gh letters we gain access to the writer's 
life in a way that is both authentic self-revelation and an illumination 
of the larger society. 

24 The Mind's Eye 

Rosanne fkszar Denhard 

Because her correspondence covers such a broad period, depicting 
the life of this late-medieval woman from the year after her marriage in 
1440— probably at the age of 18 (Richmond 120) — to two years before 
her death in 1484, the 104 surviving letters by Margaret Paston and the 
many surviving letters that she received not only provide a view of 
the external details of her life but also furnish substantial insights into the 
nature of Margaret Paston herself. 3 Additionally, Margaret's corres- 
spondence serves to illuminate the lives of other, mostly anonymous, 
lale-medicval English women of the gentry, whose lives were almost 
certainly in many respects similar to her own. To set in perspective for 
late-20th-centuryreadersjust what these 1 04 surviving letters by a 15th- 
century English woman mean in terms of their potential to reveal the 
character and life of their writer, one has only to realize that the surviv- 
ing correspondence of no other English woman of the period even begins 
to approach the volume of extant personal writing that survives by Mar- 
garet Paston (Watt 1 22, 1 36-37). 

In reading Margaret Paston's letters like an epistolary novel, I am 
struck by the realization of both similarities to and differences from the 
letters of fiction. The first distinction, obviously, is that the letters ol Mar- 
garet Paston are "real," whereas the letters of an epistolary novel are 
merely "realistic." The second major difference between the Pastons' 
actual correspondence and the imaginary letters of fiction — and the big- 
gest challenge to the reading of the Paston letters as literature — is the 
randomness of the correspondence. The reader of the Paston letters has 
only what survives of all that was originally written, and what was writ- 
ten came not from a desire to create a literary work using the letter form 
but from a need to communicate through letters. In addition, as Norman 
Davis points out, much of the correspondence was certainly lost over the 
years (xxvi), so in spite ol the extensive nature of Margaret Paston's sur- 
viving correspondence and the volume of the entire Paston correspon- 
dence, which totals more than 900 letters and documents, what remains 
is still fragmentary, in a sense unfinished. 

Because of both the nature of the letters and their randomness, Mar- 
garet Paston reveals herself (and is depicted by others) almost inadvert- 
emly, again in contrast to the depiction of character in a true epistolary 
novel or, for that matter, in any work of "imaginative" literature. Margaret's 
letters provide not the exaggeration and elaboration of an imaginative 
work but, rather, the commonplace reality of the lives of the English 
gentry during the 1 5th century. It is, however, precisely this quality of 
the everyday that makes these letters so revealing, particularly since 
Margaret's correspondence is personal rather than ceremonial in nature. 

The Mind's Eys 25 

Rasanne Fleszar Denhard 

Margaret primarily addressed her letters to her husband and two 
eldest sons and in these letters shares her concerns with the manage- 
ment, in both the business and the personal sense, oi Paston interests, 
Similarly, the letters addressed to her are for the most part from either 
close relatives or family business agents. We have everywhere in the 
correspondence the "real" Margaret Paston, even as she assiduously 
follows custom and etiquette, as in her use of the common form of for- 
mal address. Most of the letters, from Margaret and her correspondents, 
merge business with family in a way that reveals much about the inte- 
gration of 1 5th-century manorial life on all levels and attests to the active 
role Margaret Paston played in business affairs at the same time that she 
was occupied in caring for her family in what a modern reader might 
term more traditionally domestic ways. P. J. P. Goldberg has written of 
the "work identity" of late-medieval women as being particularly "fluid" 
for women of all classes, both at home and in business (which were usu- 
ally in the same place or places) (1 161, as did earlier historians such as 
Eileen Power. We see just such a fluidity in Margaret Paston's own life 
and work and daily concerns expressed through her correspondence. 

What fascinates me is that this is a case of social reality presented in 
the writing that seems to at least in some regards subvert the stated 
doctrinal order of the male/female hierarchy favored by the dominant 
powers of Church and law. As Power points out, "The position of women 
is often considered as a test by which the civilisation of a country or age 
may be judged" (9). Acknowledging the complexity of defining pre- 
cisely what is the "position of women" for any time and place, Power 
notes that "the position of women is one thing in theory, another in 
legal position, yet another in everyday life. . . . The true position of 
women was a blend of all the three" (9). 1 would emend Power's term 
"theory" to include the arts, in this case, the imaginative literary repre- 
sentation of women by both themselves and, far more commonly in 
the Middle Ages, male writers. It is precisely this intersection of women 
in theory and women in practice, to use Power's terms (43), that inter- 
ests me. As she maintains, we must observe medieval women "as re- 
vealed to us not in romances but in records" if we are to assess their 
true position within the household (41 ), and, I would add, within the 
larger society. 

The reader must keep in mind that the exploration and revelation 
of her feelings was rarely Margaret Paston's intention in her letters (ex- 
cept, perhaps, when she wrote earnestly to her husband or children of 
intimate family issues, and even in the majority of these letters she 
often focuses alternately on personal and business matters). Most of 

26 The Mind's Eye 

Rosanne Fleszar Denhard 

the time, Margaret's letters deal pragmatically and calmly with myriad 
household issues ranging from ordinary to downright alarming, and 
this in itself reveals a great deal about the woman and her personal 
response to the time in which she lived. The term "household" for the 
Fastens actually meant several houses, farms and landholdings — includ- 
ing Margaret's own properties from her inheritance as sole heir of her 
father's substantial estates. 

In a letter of 1448, written when Margaret, then a mother in her 
20s, was in charge of her family's estate at Gresham while her husband 
was occupied at other family holdings, she tells her husband of prepar- 
ing for a possible attack by forces of one of the family's enemies, Lord 
Moleyns, and his bailiff. Partridge. She writes: 

Ryt wurchipful husband, I recomaund me to you and prey 
you to gete som crosse bows, and windlasses to bynd them 
wyth. , . . For your houses here ben so low that there may no 
man shoot out wyth a long bow, though we hadde so much 
need. . . . And also I would thee should get two or three short 
pole-axes to keep wyth[in] doors, . . . 

Partryche and his fellowship are sore afraid that thee would 
enter again up-on them, and they have made great ordinance 
wyth-inne the house, as it is told me. They have made bars to 
bar the doors cross-wise, and they have made wickets on ev- 
ery quarter of the house to shoot out of, both wyth bows and 
with hand guns. . . . (no. 130) 

From her request for arms and fortifications for the house and her de- 
scription of fortifications that Partridge has made on their enemy strong- 
hold, Margaret shifts in the same letter to other needs: 

I prey that ye will vouche-safe to buy for me one pound of 
almonds and one pound of sugyre, and that ye will buy some 
frieze- cloth to make your children's gowns; ye shall have the 
best cheap and best choice of Hay's wife, as it is told me. And 
that would ye buy a yard of broadcloth of black for a hood for 
me . . . for there is no other good cloth nor good frieze in this 
town, As for the children's gowns, when I have cloth I shall 
make them. The Trinity have you in his keeping and send you 
good speed in all your matters, (no. 130) 

The juxtaposition of weapons with yardgoods in the above letter 
reveals a great deal about both the character of Margaret (in her 
mattei-of-fact way of relating both her needs and the situation) and the 

The Mind's Eye 17 

Rosanne Fksmr Denhard 

demands placed upon her. Far from being unusual, the situation Mar- 
garet Paston confronted while in charge of the property at Gresham 
was a fairly typical one for married women of the landed gentry during 
the 1 5th century, Indeed, through the span of the Middle Ages, letters 
provide historical documentation of women in positions of power re- 
gardless of the many obstacles posed by male Church and male legal 
communities (Ferrante Glory 3-10j. 

The cultural historian David Herlihy observes that "limited infor- 
mation has allowed the field of household history to become overgrown 
with many dubious assertions concerning the Middle Ages, The medi- 
eval family has become the negative stereotype against which later 
families are compared, in order to show the alleged benefits of modern- 
ization" (1 12). Since both Church and secular lawpromoted an "ideal" 
that was sometimes to the detriment of real women's lives, and gener- 
ally omitted any account of the actual living of those lives, it is not 
difficult to comprehend how evidence of the official — and at times 
misogynistic — views promoted by Church and law could lean toward a 
modem interpretation that the subordination and demeaning of women 
was a medieval constant. But the records of actual lives and some of 
the teaching treatises by and for women (as well as some of those by 
and for men) prove otherwise. Herlihy writes that marriage was "reha- 
bilitated" in the 1 5th century (117), noting a steady increase in women's 
opportunities, influence and power during the Middle Ages. Ferrante, 
echoing Power's earlier work on women land owners, both married and 
single (Power 38-42), supports this interpretation, maintaining that the 
letters written by women during the Middle Ages attest to the [acts that 
"women's authority, political and intellectual, is recognized by the men 
who work with them, that women collaborate with men in politics, 
religion and scholarship as colleagues, that their friendship and support 
is valued and trusted" (Glory 10). 

This exercise of womanly authority in collaboration with men is 
competlingty present in Margaret Paston's life as revealed through the 
Paston corresponden ce. Margaret's relations with her husba n d and seven 
children, bailiff, business associates, tenants and enemies all show a 
decisive, clear- thinking and courageous woman who was a true part- 
ner to her husband while looking after their mutual interests and main- 
taining an absolute loyalty to him that conforms to the ideals of the 
period. John Paston at times addressed his wife alone in letters focused 
on important business and at other rimes addressed a team of trusted 
people headed by Margaret. A letter from John I to Margaret in 1 460 is 
typical in its matter and tone, keeping Margaret informed of current 

28 The Mini's Eye 

Rosanne Fleszar Dmhard 

business and trusting her to do her part: 

1 recomaunde me to you, letyng you know that I sent a letter 
to John Russe and Richard Kallc [the longtime family bailiff, 
whose name is usually spelled Calle, who in 1469 married the 
Pastons' daughter Margery] that they . . . shuld send me word 
oi whom alle the manors, lands, and tenementes that wer Sir 
John Fastolffes [John Paston I was legal advisor to Sir John 
Fastolf, a relative of Margaret's, and served as an executer of 
his highly contested estate] wern holde, praying you that ye 
wole do them spede them in that matter. And if my papers 
which lie in ... my great chest may contain anything helpful 
there-in, let them see it ... f prey you recomaunde me to my 
mother. . . . (no. 55) 

Similar letters (e.g., no. 75) are addressed individually to Margaret or 
jointly to her, Richard Calle and one or more additional family estate 
agents, and these reinforce the importance of Margaret Paston's role as 
a coordinator of the often complicated process of gathering information 
and looking out for the family's land and financial interests. 

Since John was often traveling between one landholding and an- 
other, and during some periods frequently in London on legal business, 
Margaret generally stayed in residence at one place longer than he and 
took full responsibility for affairs there and at nearby holdings, though 
she was always careful to keep her husband informed of her doings: 

Ryt wyrshypful husbond. . . . Pleased you to know that I have 
spoken thys week wyth diverse of your tenents of Drayton 
and put them in comfort that all shall be well hereafter, by the 
grace of God; and I feel well by them that they will be ryght 
glad to have again their olde master, and so wold they all ex- 
cept one or two that be false shrews. 

And thys nest week t purpose on Wensday or Thursday to 
be at Haylesdon and to abide there a week or two and send 
cure men about to gather [rent] money at Drayton before I 
come thence, f pray you send me word how ye will that i do 
there-in. . . . (no. 179) 

John, in turn, showed a great deal of respect for Margaret's managemen t 
skills and judgment. Perhaps even more significantly, he recognized her 
rule as a matter of course, writing, "Ye be a gentilwoman, and it is fitting 
for yow to comfort yowT tenants . . ." (no. 73). 

As noted earlier, Margaret Paston and her household were some- 

The Mind's Bye 29 

Rosanrte Fkszar Denhttrd 

times in considerable danger during the troubled period of political con- 
flict between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians and their various 
subfactions. She indicates through her letters a willingness to take on a 
proactive role in the family's best interests, and John's praise in his let- 
ters to her underscores his admiration of her actions. On July 12, 1465, 
Margaret writes to her husband regarding their dispute with the Duke 
of Suffolk concerning the manors of Drayton and Hellesdon: 

Ryght worshypful husbond, 1 recomaund me to yow, preyeng 
you heartily that ye wyl seek a means that yowre servants 
may be in peace, for they be dayly in fear of their lives. The 
Duke of Suffolk's men thretyn dayly Daubney.Wykys, and Ri- 
chard CalJe that where so ever they may gete them they schold 
die. And threats have been made on Rychard Calle this week, 
so that he was in gret jeopardy at Norwych among them. And 
gret threats have been made upon me and My felashep here 
on Monday last passyd. ... I suppose there shall be gret labor 
against yow and yowre servauntys at the assizes and sessions 
here, and wherefore it semeth to me, saving yowre better 
advyce, it were well do that ye shold speke wyth the justices 
before they come here. And if ye will that 1 complain to them 
or to any othere, if God fortune me lyfe and helth T wol do as 
ye advyse me to do, for in good feyth I have been simply en- 
treated amonge them. And what wyth syknesse and troble that 
I am brought ryght low and weak, but to my powere I wyl do 
as I can or may in yowre matters. . . . (no. 1 88) 

In the above excerpt we observe Margaret's courage and determi- 
nation to speak out for Paston interests and her willingness to make 
suggestions to her husband on what course to take ("it were well do 
that ye shold speke wyth the justices before they come here"), as well 
as her deference to her husband's wishes. As John makes clear in a 
letter to his wife that soon follows, he admires and respects her work 
and is also concerned for her well-being during this time of stress: 

I recummand me to yow and thank yow of yowr labour and 
business with the unruly fellowship that came before yow on 
Monday last past, whereof I heard report by John Hobbs; and in 
good faith ye acquit yow right wei and discretly, and heartily to 
yowr worship and myn and to the shame of yowr adversaries. 
And I am wel content that ye avowed that ye kept possession at 
Drayton, and so wold do; wherfor I pray yow make yowr word 
good if ye may, and at the least let myn adversaries not have it 

30 The Mind's Eye 

Rosanne Fkszar Dmhard 

in peace if ye may. John Honbs telleth me that ye be sickly, 
which me liketh not to hear, praying you eamestiy that ye take 
what may do yow ease and spare not, and in any wyse take no 
thought nor too much labor for these matters, nor set it so to 
yowr heart hat ye fare the worse for it. And as for the matter, so 
they overcame you not with force nor boasting, 1 shall have the 
manor more surely to me and myn than the Duke shall have 
Cossey, doubt ye not. . . . (no. 74) 

In a long letter written to Margaret, Richard Calle and another family 
retainer, John Paston I presents a detailed view of his complex business 
matters. Written January 15, 1465 — the year before John's death — this 
letter is another that emphasizes the position of partnership and trust 
that Margaret held in the marriage. Things were not going well for the 
family during this period of the 1460s and John I had serious concerns 
for the Paston interests, which he voices in a letter of criticism and ad- 
vice, firmly laying out responsibilities and guidelines for Margaret and 
the family agents {no. 72). This long letter is full of intricate business 
details and its tone is grim, both in the lengthier business segments and in 
the portion devoted to John's thoughts on his problematic relationship 
with son John Paston II, then 23, who hat! been knighted two years 
before but was still in his father's eyes a rebellious child. 

The Italian-French writer Christine de Pisan (1365-c. 1430) ad- 
dressed her treatise The Treasure of the City of Ladies or The Book of the 
Three Virtues to all "ladies" and "women" of the medieval hierarchy, 
from highest to lowest. While the work is clearly intended to give mora! 
instruction, the blending of the spiritual with the pragmatic is charac- 
teristically medieval. It is therefore perfectly appropriate for a writer to 
be, as was Christine, concerned with emphasizing to women both the 
primacy of Christian love and the importance of being astute in the busi- 
ness skills necessary for the management of a family. In writing to her 
female contemporaries, Christine de Pisan was providing instruction on 
how to live a good life as a woman within the complex framework of 
late-medieval society. Her work provides a sort ol literary bridge be- 
tween the theoretical and the practical, and one can view the real-life 
character of Margaret Paston as largely an embodiment of this teaching. 

So, too, in the work termed the first autobiography in English, The 
Book of Margery Kempe, Margery (c. 1373-c. 1440) portrays herself as a 
woman of both spiritual and earthly concerns, in this case concerns 
that frequently compete. Margery Kempe's text provides yet another 
invaluable view of a real 1 Sth-century woman, one who managed a 
large family and business and financial matters while actively seeking a 

The Mind's Eye 31 

Rosanne Fkszar Denhard 

more spiritually fulfilling life and a forum for her religious mysticism. 

While Margaret Paston only rarely refers overtly to spiritual matters 
in her letters, there is evidence that she was truly devout. Like most 
letter writers of her time, she closes all but the most urgent of her letters 
to family members with one or more blessings, frequently the conven- 
tional "The Holy Trirtyty have you in His kepyng" or something very 
similar. At other times, however, Margaret elaborates upon her bless- 
ings, turning them into something more personally revealing of her con- 
cerns at the time of writing. Perhaps most striking is the following, which 
ends a letter written to John I in 1461.: 

God in hys mercy send us a good world, and send you health in 
body and soul and good speed in all your matters, (no. 160) 

Many years earlier, in 1448, Margaret earnestly advised her husband 
on spiritual matters as only a trusted wife and partner could: 

I pray you heartily hear mass and other services that ye are 
bound to hear with a devout heart, and 1 hope veryly that ye 
sha! speed right wele in all your matters, by the grace of God. 
Trust veryly in God and obey hym and serve hym, and he wyl 
not desert thee. (no. 129) 

Margaret Paston's concern for her husband — as well as her frank 
sharing of advice both moral and practical with him throughout their 
25-year marriage — is evidenced through this and the many other let- 
ters that she wrote to him. In letter number 1 29 Margaret also reveals 
herself following the advice of Christine de Pisan, who counseled 
women to intervene, if necessary, in their husbands' spiritual lives, 
though tellingly — and probably pragmatically — Christine suggests that 
the wife's approach to influencing her husband's spiritual lile should 
be through building a goud relationship with his confessor and asking 
him to intervene with the husband on matters of concern (63). Mar- 
garet Paston's approach to her husband's spiritual well-being, as evi- 
denced in the above letter, was more direct. 

Margaret often interceded for other family members in bringing 
matters to the attention of her husband, showing a sincere concern for 
the happiness and harmony of her large family. John I's younger sister 
Elizabeth, though willing to marry and not without suitors, remained 
unmarried until around the age of 30, at least partly because of the 
reluctance of her mother and her brother John I, who was since his 
father's death in 1444 the head of the family, to settle on any but the 
most financially beneficial marriage contract for Elizabeth (Richmond 

32 Tht Mind's Eye 

Rosanne Fkszar Denhatd 

177-81). Precisely how influential Margaret Paston was in helping 
to bring this situation to a positive resolution is unknown because of 
gaps in the correspondence; but it is clear that Elizabeth herself and 
also her brother William regarded their sister-in-law as a sympathetic 
and powerfully persuasive ally. In a letter to John 1 that is possibly 
Irom 1453 (no. 145), Margaret informs him of the conflicts between 
Elizabeth and her mother and conveys a plea from Elizabeth: 

I recommawnd me to yow, praying yow to know that I spak 
yistirday wyth my sister. . . . And she desyrith, if it pleased yow, 
that ye shuld give the gentleman that ye know of such language 
as he myght feel by yow that ye will be well wiltyng to the 
matter that ye know of. . . . Wherefore she prayeth yow that ye 
will be her good brothere, and that ye myght have a full answere 
at this time whether it shall be ya or nay. (no. 145) 

Several years later, probably in 1458, Elizabeth and Johnl's brother 
William wrote to his sister-in-law Margaret to say that this time Eliza- 
beth really seemed to be "upon point of marriage," adding, "I pray you 
do your pan to call there-on. ... I know right well your good labore 
may do much; and send me word how you hear as hastely as ye may" 
(no. 85). Elizabeth Paston did indeed marry Robert Poynings late in 
1458. It is worth noting that Christine de Pisan, in The Treasure of the City 
of ladies, stresses the importance of undertaking precisely such types of 
familial mediation as part of the duty of the wellborn woman; 

If she values her honour, she will love and honour the rela- 
tives of her husband and show it in the following ways. . . . 
She will intervene on their behalf with her husband if the need 
arises, and if there should be any dispute between them she 
will do her utmost to make peace. (65-66) 

Margaret Paston also reveals her willingness to take part in aiding 
others in her actions as advocate for people outside her family. The Paston 
correspondence of the summer of 1461 relates the story of the political 
murder of Thomas Denys. In a letter to her husband of July 9 of that 
summer, Margaret expresses her particular concern for the plight of Denys' 
widow, who was herself in danger, and asks John I to find a way to help 
this woman obtain her rightful property and safety: 

Please yow to know that I have spoke with Thomas Denys' 
wife, and she recommands herself to your good mastership 
and that ye will give her your advice how to act for her person 
and her goods; for rega rdi ng her own self sh e dare not go home 

The Mind's Eye 33 

Rosanne Fieszar Denhari 

to her owne place, for she is threatened that if she be taken 
she myght be slayne or be put in a fearful place in shortening 
of her life, and so she standeth in great heaviness, God her 
help. (no. 160) 

Margaret further explains to her husband that she has already con- 
sulted another person familiar with the Deny; family's plight for advice 
on how Mrs. Denys should proceed, and informs him that she has lent 
Mrs. Denys money. Margaret then shifts to her concern for the safety 
of her husband and herself, writing, "At the reveraunce of God be warey 
how ye ride or go, for [fear of] . . . evil-disposed fellowships. I am put in 
fear dayly for my abiding here and counseled by my mother and by 
other good friends that I shuld not abide here" (no. 160). In spite other 
own fears for self and family, Margaret shows a sense of empathy and 
sisterhood for another woman who is at that moment more in need 
than herself, illustrating in this episode qualities that Ferrante observes 
as being defining characteristics of much of the correspondence of me- 
dieval women {Glory 3-4, 11). Margaret's desire to help this vulnerable 
widow is also a real-life embodiment of the concern with women help- 
ing women that is one of the themes of Christine de Pisan's Treasure of the 
City of Ladies. 

Perhaps the most difficult mediation that Margaret Paston ever 
undertook was between her own son John II (1442-1479)— by this 
time Sir John— and his father. Numerous letters among all three people 
trace the tension between Sir John and his father and Margaret's efforts 
toward a lasting reconciliation between them. In a letter of November 
1 5, 1463, Margaret writes to her son: 

. . . Youre father thought, and thynketh yet, that I was agreed 
to your departyng, and that hathe caused me to have gret 
hevinesse. 1 hope he wolle be youre good father her-after if . 
you behave yourself well and do as you owe to him. And I 
charge you upon my blessing that in anythyng touching your 
father that should be his worship, profyte, or avayle that ye do 
your duty and diligent labore, as you wish to have my good 
wille; and that shalle cause youre father to be a better father to 
you. (no. 175) 

In letter number 175 Margaret further suggests to her son that be write 
again to his father, who had ignored his son's first letter to him, "as lowly 
as ye can, beseeching hym to be your good father. ... I trust ye shall fynd 
it most beneficial to you," adding that she would like her son to write to 
her again soon to keep her informed. In a letter written a few months 

34 The Mind's Eye 

Rosanne Fleszar Denhard 

later, a very respectful and conciliatory Sir John addresses his father 
(no. 234), but we do not have any of his letters to his mother from this 
period; only hers to him survive. 

Margaret also writes to her husband, reminding him of his duties as 
a father and asking him to forgive their son and acknowledge him with 
fatherly respect for his abilities and to send him on an important mission, 
letting her husband know that it is also the opinion of family friends that 
young Sir John should be so recognized by his father (no. 176). Two 
years later, in 1465, Margaret again urges her husband to rethink his 
harshness toward their eldest son, who has once again displeased his 
father, writing, "For God's sake, sir, have pity on hym and remembre 
yow it hath been a long season since he had anything of you to help him. 
and he hath obeyed himself to you and will do at al] times, and will do 
that he can or may to have your good fatherhood. And at the reveraunce 
of God, be ye hys good father and have a fatherly heart to hym" (no. 
178). Margaret also assures her husband that she herself will not tolerate 
any ill behavior from her son (no. 179); and, interestingly, after John I'S 
death in 1466, it is Margaret who takes on a role similar to her late 
husband's in letters that are at times critical of her son's undisciplined 
behavior and lack of seriousness of purpose (e.g., no. 205). 

John 1 finally relented and let Margaret know that it was largely 
because ol her that he forgave the son: "Where ye desire me that I 
shuld take your son to grace, I will for your sake do the better. . . . "(no. 
72), but it is a forgiveness that is nonetheless tempered by the father's 
unrelenting — and apparently justified — criticism of the son. Although 
a knight and future head of his family, young Sir John Paston is, ac- 
cording to John I, of "presumptuous and indiscrete demeanor" and an 
"ill example" to others, including the servants. John I maintains of his 
son that "I never could feel nor understand hym politic nor diligent in 
helping himself, but as a drone amonges bees which labor forgathering 
honey in the fields and the drone does nought but laketh his part of it." 
The distinct impression is that John I, for the sake of his wife, wishes to 
forgive his son but cannot quite do so (no. 72). As David Jferlihy writes 
in Medieval Households, it was typically the role of the wife and mother 
in a family to serve in the role of "protector and intercessor" for her 
children, especially in the potentially volatile relationship between ag- 
ing father and adult sons (120-21), where the economic and land inter- 
ests of income and inheritance came into play. 

Margaret did not, however, always play the peacemaker in matters 
concerning her children. In the case of her daughter Margery's 1469 
marriage, Margaret conducted herself in an utterly conventional and un- 

The Mind 's Eye 35 

Rosanne Fkszar Dmhard 

compromising manner. Her sense of soda] position and famiiy protocol 
apparently dictated her behavior when Margery announced that she 
planned to marry family employee Richard CaUe, who figures prominently 
in the Paston family correspondence as an addressee, a clerk writing for 
family members and author of his own letters. 

Margaret was as incensed as the rest of the family by the love match 
between their 19-yea r- old Margery and Richard CaUe, who was then in his 
30s, in spite of the fact that they all knew, liked and respected him. For 
example, in January 1465 (referred to above), John 1 addresses a major 
letter detailing both business and personal matters "To my mistress Marga - 
ret Paston and to my well-beloved friends John Daubney and Richard CaUe" 
(no, 72) . The marriage did take place, against the wishes of Margery's fam- 
ily, and after a time Margery was apparently at least partially forgiven for her 
choice. After briefly leaving the Pastons' employ, Calle returned to work for 
his in-laws for many years, and in her will Margaret remembered the chil- 
dren of Margery (who had by this time died) and Richard (no. 230). 

Perhaps revealingly, one of the very few instances of secrecy in family 
matters— in the sense of a hesitation to say too much in a letter dictated to 
a clerk— occurs in Margaret Paston 's correspondence regarding her daugh- 
ter Margery prior to her marriage. In a letter from 1469 to her son Sir 
John, Margaret first addresses candidfy her thoughts on the possibility of 
his marriage to a young woman: "I have no certain knowledge of your 
engagement, but if ye be engaged I pray God send you joy and worship 
together ... and in the sight o£ God ye are as greatly bound to her as if ye 

were married Also I wotdd that ye shnld not be too hasty to be married 

till ye are more sure of your livelihood, for ye must remember what charge 
ye shall have. . ." (no. 201). This contrasts considerably with Margaret's 
reticence to discuss the details of Sir John's sister's situation in the follow- 
ing lines: 

Also I wish you shuld purvey for your sister to be wyth my lady 
of Oxford or with my lady of Bedlord or in some other place of 
good standing where as ye trunk best, and I will help to her Fynding, 
for we be both of us weary of the other. I shall telle you more 
when 1 speke wyth you. I pray you do your duty here as ye will 
my comfort and welefare and your worship, for diverse causes 
which ye shall mtderstand afterward, etc. (no. 201 ) 

It is worth noting that according to medieval canon law, which gov- 
erned marriage, a binding marriage commitment could be effected by a 
freely given promise of consent by both parties (provided they were of 
legal age) followed by consummation (Goldberg 126). Margaret seems 

36 The Mind's Eye 

Rosatme Fleszar Denhard 

to have the seriousness of this in mind regarding her son's possible be- 
trothal; yet, when the lamily learned that Margery and Richard Calle had 
made a binding betrothal promise prior to a formal marriage, the Pastons 
had the couple brought before the bishop, who questioned them and 
found their union valid (no. 203). Margaret indicates in her correspon- 
dence real grief over this situation. At least from her 15th-century per- 
spective, her daughter was marrying beneath herself and her family and 
this would bring sorrow (no. 203). 

Like most marriages of the landed gentry during the 1 5th century, 
and in contrast with the marriage of Margery to the socially "inferior" 
Richard Calle, the marriage of Margaret Mautby and John Paston was 
considered an appropriate match in terms of family connections and 
holdings. The relationship seems to have grown quickly into one 
grounded in mutual affection as well as mutual business interests. In 
one of Margaret's first surviving letters to her husband (probably 1441, 
December 14), she closes with lines referring obliquely to her pregnancy: 

f pray you that ye wyl wear the image of Seynt Margret [pa- 
tron saint of pregnant women] that 1 sent you for a remem- 
brance tyl ye com home. Ye have lefte me such a remembrance 
that it makes me thynk upon you both day and night when I 
ought to sleep, (no. 1 2 5 ) 

Throughout their marriage, Margaret and John each expressed concern 
for the other's welfare as they individually coped with long separations 
necessitated by business and politics and the complex and frequently 
dangerous situations they were both so adept at negotiating. At times 
throughout their marriage, their anxieties, generally kept in the back- 
ground, would briefly take center stage, as in John's expression of con- 
cern for Margaret's well-being during the 1465 dispute over Hellesdon 
cited above (no. 74) and in this excerpt from a letter from Margaret 
Paston to John 1 written in 1443: 

I recomande me to yow, desyryng earnestly to hear of your 
welfare, thanking God of your amending of the grete disease 
that ye have had: and I thank yow for the letter that ye sent 
me, for by my troth my mother [-in-law] and 1 were not in 
heart's ease from the tyme that we learned of your sickness 
til we learned surely of your amending. . . . I wish ye were at 
home, if it were your ease and your sore myght be as well 
looked after here as it is where ye be now, rather than a new 
gown, though it be of scarlet. . . . (no. 126) 

The Mind's Bye 37 

Rosanne Fkszar Denhard 

Twenty-five years after their marriage, in the year before John's 
sudden death, Margaret and John exchanged letters with very affec- 
tionate opening lines after a visit following a long separation that had 
included for John both illness and imprisonment in London. John ad- 
dresses his wife with ra re courtliness as "myn owne dear sovreign lady, " 
adding, "1 recomaund me to yow and thank yow of the great cheer ye 
made me here" before moving on to more characteristic business and 
family matters (no. 77). In her reply dated a week later, Margaret re- 
turns the compliment graciously before also turning to more pragmatic 
items of interest: 

Ryghi worshipful husbonde, I recommend me to yow, desir- 
ing sincerely to hear of your welfare, thankyng you of yowr 
great cheer that ye made me and the cost that ye did on me. 
Ye spent more than myn will was that ye should do, but that it 
pleased yow to do so. God give me grace to do that may please 
yow. (no. 192) 

Most of the correspondence between Margaret and John Paston, however, 
is warm and cordial but does not dwell on their relationship as such, 

While a hierarchical structure with the husband in the position of 
highest authority undoubtedly existed in the marriage of John and Mar- 
garet Faston, their correspondence shows it to have been tempered by 
both reason and mutual respect, ff one were to attempt an allegorical 
reading of this real-fife situation, it would be a positive statement on 
what would have been considered a doctrinally sound marriage. At the 
same time, what emerges for the modern reader is a view of a marriage, 
expressed by both wife and husband, that is as "equal" as could be imag- 
ined in a society whose guiding force was ostensibly a Church that had 
little official use for women in positions of authority. 

What the letters tell us about Margaret Paston is necessarily an in- 
complete and at times fragmented story, but nonetheless a complex 
character does inhabit the correspondence. Part of what makes the 
character of Margaret Paston so fascinating for the reader is the truth 
involved in her letters. One has no reason to suspect self- consciousness 
or hidden motives in Margaret's letters. In a sense, what we have is a 
character who often seems to be unconsciously revealing herself. Be- 
cause the letters of Margaret Paston and her correspondents are direct 
and without artifice (while simultaneously, of course, being precise and 
circumspect), we can trust these and other purely historical records of 
the period to convey the truth of the characters' lives and illuminate 
their cultural milieu without the innate distortion that is implicit in 

38 The Mind's Eye 

Rosaline Fleszar Denhatd 

endeavors of theory, whether religious, political or sell-consciously lit- 
erary. And while the random nature of the letters in terms of content 
(i.e., Margaret Paston wrote about what she needed to write about at a 
particular time and not all of that writing survives) makes the "plot" of 
the Paston letters fragmentary, a basic narrative line does emerge. Read- 
ing the character of Margaret Paston as she voices her concerns and 
experiences through her correspondence we come to know her as a 
remarkable yet in many senses ordinary 15th-century woman of the 
English gentry, and through her we read the lives of other, unknown, 
women who were her contemporaries. 

1 A note on Margaret Paston's literacy and the education of late -medi- 
eval women: Since clerks and secretaries often served as scribes to record 
the dictated letters and manuscripts of both writers and nonwriters, 
and because it was more common to know how to read than to be able 
to read and write, the question of Margaret Paston's literacy is a compli- 
cated one. A number of scholars either contradict one another or find 
the available evidence inconclusive. Norman Davis, on the basis of tex- 
tual and scribal evidence, maintains that Margaret and the other Paston 
women correspondents were either nonwriters or only minimally skilled 
at writing (xxxvii-viii). James Gairdner, the editor of the edition of the 
Paston correspondence preceding Davis' edition, seems to indicate a 
tacit acceptance of the ability of Margaret Paston (and the other women 
of the family) to write. H. S. Bennett states clearly that the Paston women 
were fully literate, but he acknowledges their frequent use of clerks 
(116). Eileen Power believes that the Paston women, including Marga- 
ret, were able to both read and write (85). Frances and Joseph Gies are 
uncertain about Margaret Paston's ability to write (212-13), Joan 
Ferrante, while not writing specilically about the Paston women, makes, 
in the more recent "The Education of Women in the Middle Ages in 
Theory, Fact, and Fantasy," a strong case for her thesis that many women 
of the nobility and gentry were well educated and recognized for their 
educational achievement, concurring with Power's much earlier work 
in "The Education of Medieval Women" {Medieval Women 76-88). 
Philippe Braunstcin acknowledges that many women were literate dur- 
ing this period (549). Christine de Pisan writes about the responsibility 

The Mind's Eye 39 

Rosanne Fleszar Denhard 

of mothers for their children's education (66-68) and stresses that 
women need to have the skills necessary to supervise their families, 
households and financial affairs (130-31). Lesley Smith believes that 
women's literacy rates were higher than previously believed (21). lam 
convinced that Margaret Paston could indeed read, but I am not neces- 
sarily convinced that she could write. 

2 By "character" I mean (1) the sum of traits and features that consti- 
tute the discernible individual nature of a person and (2) a person 
represented in a written text, 

i A note on the language of Margaret Paston's correspondence; The 
English of Norfolk during the 15th century still utilized several special 
letter symbols, surviving from Old English into Middle English. In ad- 
dition, certain spellings use standard modern letters in ways unfamiliar 
enough to cause confusion for most general readers. I have therefore 
taken the liberty of silently adapting some of the spellings of Davis'edition 
Of Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, in which the letters 
appear in the original Middle English, replacing potentially confusing 
symbols and letters with their modern English equivalents, in order to 
clarify meaning for the readers of the present article. 1 have adapted 
the spellings only where I perceived a true need, and I have made no 
attempt to "translate" the cited passages into standard modern English, 
though 1 have oo occasion substituted or added a modem English word 
when the original Middle English seemed likely to cause confusion for 
the general reader. 

Works Cited 

All citations from the Paston correspondence are adapted from Paston 
Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, 2 vols., ed. Norman 
Davis (London: Oxford UP, 1971, 1976), and are identified in 
parentheses in the text by the number ol the letter. 

Bennett, H. S. The Fastens and Their England. London: Cambridge UP, 

40 The Mind's Eye 

Rosanne Fleszar Denhard 

Braunstein, Philippe. "Toward Intimacy: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth 
Centuries." A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World. 
Ed. George Duby. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA; 
Belknap-Harvard UP, 1988. 535-630. 

Cherewatuk, Karen, and Ulrike Wiethaus, eds. Introduction. Dear Sis- 
ter: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre. Philadelphia: U of 
Pennsylvania P, 1993. 1-19. 

Christine de Pisan. The Treasure of the City of Ladies or the Book of the Three 
Virtues. Trans. Sarah Lawson. Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1985. 

Ferrante, Joan M. "The Education of Women in the Middle Ages 
in Theory. Fact, and Fantasy." Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women 
of the European Past. Ed. Patricia Lahalme. New York: NY UP, 
1980. 9-42. 

, To the Glory of Her Sex: Women 's Soles in the Composition of Medieval 

Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997, 
Gairdner, James, ed. The Paston Letters: 1422-1509. Vol. 1. London: 

Chatto, 1904. 

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. "Margaret Paston: A Fifteenth-Century 
.Gentlewoman." Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper 1978, 

Goldberg, P. J. P. "Women." Fifteenth-Century Attitudes. Ed. Rosemary 
Horrox. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 112-31. 

Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1 985. 

Power, Eileen. Medieval Women. Ed. M. M. Postan. Cambridge: Cam- 
bridge UP, 1975. 

Richmond, Colin. The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge: 

Cambridge UP, 1990. 
Smith, Lesley. "Scriba, Femina: Medieval Depictions of Women 

Writing." Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence. 

Ed. Jane H. M. Taylor and Lesley Smith. London: British 

Library, 1997. 21^14. 
Watt, Diane. '"No Writing for Writing's Sake'; The Language of Service 

and Household Rhetoric in Lhe Letters of the Paston Women." 

Cherewatuk and Wiethaus. 122-38. 
Windeatt, B. A., trans. The Book of Margery Kempe. London: Penguin, 1985. 

The Mind's Eye 41 


Appendix Seven 


Astonished and confused. Hector Holt sat across from his lather 
in the nursing home. Mark was having one of his rare lucid 
days and Hector was debating with himself whether it ha d been 
a mistake to bring him here, with all that entailed— including the bouts 
with his father's hatred of nursing homes, and Hector's bouts with his 
own ideals about the need for a dignified way for the infirm elderly to 
be guided to a dignified end. Hector should have been glad, he sup- 
posed, for his father's relapse into clarity; instead, it was piercing him 
with guilt. 

Jf Father were still at home, the home would not have been sold to 
pay for the "geriatric care" he was now receiving at Shining Tides, ff 
Father were still at home, Hector continued to muse, trebling his guilt, 
would this pale smell of urine be present? Would his father's sparse 
shock of stark while hair jet out over his ears in mangled fistfuls? That 
tin chair with the pillow on it — would that be how his father was en- 
throned? Would he look, in those blue pinstriped pajamas, so much 
like a patient, or a prisoner? 

Hector put the tips of his fingers together and shook them slowly 
up and down until he achieved the pleasant sensation of a pane of glass 
between his hands. The illusion was really quite remarkable, sensory 
magic of a kind. Hector was distracting himself so because Father, in his 
clarity and after a brief spasm of apparent happiness with Hector's visit, 

42 The Mind's Eye 

Robert Abel 

which was not unusual, had regressed to ihe old, painful topics of Hector's 
Big Mistake in Life and the woman who had caused it. Of all the memo- 
ries Father might have retained about me. Hector thought, why does it 
have to be this particular loop? We had this argument JO years ago. But 
Hector wasn't wasting any time arguing now, when there was absolutely 
no point to it. He only wished his father would remember other things, 
more mercifully conceived things, about hlin; and continued intriguing 
himself with the sensation of a pane of gfass between his fingers. 

Mark had fallen into the old loop when, out of the seeming blue, he 
had asked. "That Vietnamese girl who ruined your life, where is she now?" 

That girl. Hector said to himself, is not Vietnamese but Chinese. She's 
my age, not exactly a girl. She didn't wreck my life but changed it. She is 
in Hong Kong and I'm expecting a fax from her. It could be on my ma- 
chine this instant. Please hope she writes in English. She writes in Chi- 
nese and it's half a day in Appendix Seven, digging up words I don't 
know, and taking time I haven't got. To his father, he said simply, "She's 
back in Vietnam." 

"You were a fool in love," his father said. 

"That's my name," Hector said. Ask me again, and I'll. ..." 

"Your name's Hector," Mark replied. "We named you after the 

"And your name's Mark," Hector said. "You were named after the 

"You dodged the draft," Mark said. 

And you, Hector did not say, never lived up to your name, either. 
World of hypocrites? 

"Your Vietnamese girl, I never could pronounce her name." 

"Yes," Hector said. "It was very difficult. Her name was Ho." Ho 
Chuan Yu, actually, he thought. Spring Rain Ho. A pre-Cultural Revo- 
lution name. Unlike the recent arrivals he had contacted at the bus 
station, Qing Xin (Clear Heart), named after Mao's wife, ironically 
enough, her parents clearly innocent of all the behind-the-scenes ugli- 
ness, Mao's relentless philandering and his distaste for the former ac- 
tress, to be named after a Gang of Four leader after all; and Ms. Kai Yan, 
the really pretty one, even in her travel exhaustion, named after a poem 
by Mao, her name meaning "let the performance begin." Before them, 
Elong Xing (Red Star), Xiao Hong (Little Red), Xue Jun (Leant from the 
Army), Hongjun (Red Army), Xing Jun (Happy Army). . . . Hector and 
Ms. Ho had an exchange of faxes playing facetiously with the idea of 

The Mind's Eye At 

Robert Abel 

American equivalents of names like these. American Flag Jones; White 
House Smith; Semper Fideiis Greene; Remember the Maine Knwalski; 
Stars and Stripes Forever Schmidt; Victory Over Japan <VJ, they call 
her) Trask; Enola Gay McCracken. . . , 

But you understand, Ms. Ho said later via telephone, these names 
were lamb's blood on the lintel. They were meant to ward off the aveng- 
ing angels of the Mao cult. In some societies, you know, people name 
their children perversely, so the gods won't be jealous. You might have 
been named, say, Stupid Boy Holt, or Urttalemed Holt. 

You called me Stupid once. Hector said. 

I did not, she protested. 

Oh, yes, I called you shijie zui met li de nu ten, World's Most Beautiful 
Woman. And you said, Shijie zui ben de Ten, World's Stupidest Mail. 
Because you were foolish to think me that beautiful, of course. 
That's my father's name for me. Fool in Love. It could be worse. 
What's worse than being the world's stupidest man? 
Nothing at all. 

Hey, I'm teasing. Hector, You know, Chinese have many names in 
life — childhood name, school name, family name, college name. You 
had a college name. 

I did? 

Of course you did. When I first knew you, I thought you were 
named Carpenter. All your friends called you "Hey, Carpenter." 
Oh, yeah. That was my summer job, 

I know. Funny, though, that's what you've become, A carpenter. 

To my dad's horror. He thought I'd become an engineer and move 
right into Starfield Technologies right behind him. It still bugs him that 
I changed majors. To this day. 

Carpenter is nice woid in Chinese, Ms. Ho had said. Mujin. Trans- 
former of wood. 

My dad transformed metals. And 1 liked being called Carpenter, 
Hectorsaid. It makes me think of a time when people knew where they 
fit in. I love those classic names: Baker, Butcher, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer, 
Shepherd, Smith, Mason, Keeler, Cooper. , . . 

All right already, Ms, Ho had said. But obviously people didn't like 
their place always. That's why Bakers can now be Congresspeople. Some- 
thing similar in China, though. We call them lao baixing — old hundred 
names, common people's names. Wang, Chen, Li, Fong, Lin, Liu, Wu, 
Zhang, Ho, . . . 

H The Mind's Eye 

Robert Abet 

All right already. Hector said. 

I should have predicted from your name what you would become, 
Ms. Ho said. 

Remember we had a culfege talk about what was the most impor- 
tant of all human inventions? 

I said it was the computer. This was before anybody knew anything 
about computers. You don't remember what you said? 
No, really i don't. 
You said, "The nail." 

That had been one expensive call. Hector remembered. They went 
on to discuss who the new arrivals might be, without mentioning names 
over the telephone. These people could have no names, for a while, at 
least. By fax Hector learned they were Li Bao Ai — Love Treasure Li; and 
Chen Hui Ming — Bright Shining Chen. They might be older, my age, 
Spring Rain's age. Hector thought, with names like that, and if they 
hadn't changed their names to hide from those inevitable authorities 
on either side, those jealous gods who could ruin your life, 

"You still, working?" Hector's father asked now. 



"Sorry," Hector said. "Bad hearing is an occupational disease of car- 
penters. Yes, I'm working, f'm renovating a cottage just down the street 
from your old house. Maybe you remember, The Skinner place?" 

"Skinner?" Mark shrugged his shoulders. The gesture saddened 
Hector. There seemed to be so Utile inside those pajamas now. in the 
past. Father had seemed so huge, with great thick arms that could hoist 
Hector to the living-room ceiling and jostle him there wailing in laugh- 
ter as his mother shrieked, "Mark! Don't! Please!" 

"It's the place on the bend in the road. Has a tin roof still. Always had 
red shutters. Nice field in back. Skinner always had it in potatoes or corn." 

"Skinner?" Father seemed totally fuddled now. "Names get away 
from me," he said. "Is he dead?" 

".lust recently," Hector said. "Thai's how f came into the place. Es- 
tate sale. I'll fix it up for a client." For Ms. Ho Chuan Yu, if only I could 
tell you that, Hector thought. That's what I do, Father, f'm a criminal, 
"illegal aliens" will move in, for a while, anyway. Li Love Treasure and 
Bright Shining Chen. They'll buy bicycles at a tag sale and work in 

The Mind % Eye 45 

Robert Abel 

Chinese restaurants, for a while- They'll move on, Boston, New Haven, 

New York, Wallingford, Pittsburgh Because of Spring Rain Ho, who 

ruined, who changed my life, Hector thought. 

When his father dozed off, Hector made a silent farewell and rushed 
home. The urine smell of Shining Tides Rest Home seemed to cling to 
him like a curse, perhaps a prophecy. 

So far, for some reason, Ms. Ho had sent only one man, and all the 
rest had been women, and judging from the names — maybe — the next 
two would be women, too. Perhaps it was safer or easier to send women. 
Whatever the reason, it was OK with Hector. He wondered if Ms. Ho 
sent the men to someone else, ot if she found passage for men at all, or 
if she just sent the women to him as a kind of tease, or a kind of gift, or 
a kind of statement: Look at them afl. How many there are. So many 
fike me, whatever their names. 

No fax awaited him, Hector considered whether he should wail or 
take the opportunity to finish up a few things still hanging fire at the 
cottage. Waiting just made him anxious, the cottage was not far away 
and he could check back in two, three hours. From the basement he 
lugged up a box of Skilsaw gear and swung it into the bed of his pick- 
up, which was full of scrap wood he should have dumped at the recy- 
cling center several days before. Just another one of those litde chores 
he didn't get around to. in his own house, a drain in the upstairs shower 
leaked water into the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom and if he didn't 
take care of it, he was going to have a big mess, and a big project on his 
hands. The basement door wouldn't shut properly, a window in the 
garage door was broken and all the trim around the house was looking 
ragged— among other things. But he wanted the cottage to be ready for 
the pair Ms. Ho was sending him. He'd surely have time to attend to his 
own house later. He'd have the tag end of the fall if the Florida contrac- 
tors he had signed on with for his winter work didn't call too soon. Hec- 
tor wasn't ready to leave New England. Fall was his favorite time of year. 

Hector let himself in the back door of the cottage and set up in the 
kitchen, where he would have good light for measuring and cutting his 
boards. In the rear of the house, the kitchen looked out onto a field 
covered now in beautiful dark-green rye grass, and then a patch of dry- 
ing corn, and then the row of big elms and sycamores that marked the 
banks of the river. Their leaves were golden now, and came down in a 
gently flickering snowfall. You could not see the river from the kitchen 
window, but Hector sensed it there, not afl that far away, gliding through 

46 The Mind's Eye 

Robert Abel 

the fields, parting around the smoky red boulder local folks called The 
Snake's Head. Surely the newcomers would think it resembled a dragon. 

Hector wondered, as he worked, whether the cottage had ever heard 
Chinese spoken within its walls. Surely it was no stranger to the river 
beyond, in olden days, before flood control. He finished trimming out a 
wall in the basement that would provide an extra room, one you could 
access quickly through a closet in the bedroom above and down a nar- 
row set of stairs Hector had completed a few days before. This little 
detail was the reason he had not taken out the usual building permit 
and was working alone, and in the rear of the house, his pickup tucked 
out of sight. The escape route almost certainly would not have been 
approved by the building inspector, and it wouldn't be hard to recog- 
nize for what it was. For that matter, it wouldn't escape detection by 
anyone who searched the house diligently, but it would otherwise give 
the occupants some genuine privacy and provide them with just a few 
more minutes' head start if it became necessary to escape. You would 
keep a bag here, Hector thought, ready to go. And that could happen. 
People were paying more attention to illegals now. There was unease in 
the melting pot. 

The idea for the secret room had actually come from Hector's fa- 
ther, from an earlier time, perhaps as long ago as 40 years. Mark had 
coerced the famify into one of those weekend trips he liked to places 
such as Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, or Sturbridge Village in Massa- 
chusetts, or Plymouth or Concord to the home of someone like Nathaniel 
Hawthorne. On this occasion, however, Mark had imprisoned the fam- 
ily in the station wagon for a trip to Wallingford, Connecticut, where 
his family had ancestry, and some scandal involving a bigamous great- 
great-grandfather, which Hector's mother was fond of alluding to. The 
great-great-grandfather had had a wife in Wallingford. where he owned 
a lumber yard, and a wife in Maine, near Jay, where he owned timber- 
land and a sawmill, He traveled routinely between these two locations, 
and the two families he kept remained ignorant of each other until the 
old man's funeral. All that land and real estate had been swept out of 
the family's possession in the Depression years. The old homestead, 
however, had become a restaurant and inn, and that was the destina- 
tion Mark had chosen for the weekend history lesson. 

After a meal the children found huge but tediously ordinary Yan- 
kee fare, the family took rooms above the dining area. Mark and Mabel 
stayed in one; in another Hector was forced to sleep in the same bed 

The Mind's Eye 47 

Robert Abel 

with his younger brother. Hank (named after Henry Ford, in fact), while 
his sister had the twin bed all to herself, They had settled into restless, 
jostling sleep for only a short while when Mark and Mabel shook them 
awake, made sure they were wrapped in robes and wore slippers, then 
took them on a strange, surely unlawful and whispered tour of the old 
house— by flashlight. A hidden door opened at the end of the upstairs 
hallway, awing the children: a narrow stairway descended into cob- 
webby darkness, seemingly forever, since even Father's flashlight beam 
could not penetrate its depths. In the dark mystery of that stairwell. 
Father's flashlight beam picked out the backs of secret doors that might 
have led them into the rooms of the innocent sleepers beyond — heavy 
doors marked with crude slashes of a knife, or ax, or adze— [, IT, IB, IV. . . . 
And down they went into that darkness until they emerged in the stony 
basement, where they were gratified to discover the civilized hum of 
machines automatically washing and drying the inn's linens and aprons 
and service uniforms. 

Now Father and Mother led them past the whirring and sloshing of 
the laundry into a deep passage that was clearly used now to store all 
the odd gear the innkeepers would haul out to celebrate the changes 
of the seasons. Hector remembered the oddness, in their sleepy, half- 
dreaming state, of encountering a scarecrow there in that dim passage, 
and then a silver Christmas tree hung with reflective red balls. On they 
went. Incredibly, Father forced open a door at the top of a series of flat 
stone steps and the family spilled out into moonlight. A gust of wind 
crashed into the leaves of the huge mapies surrounding them, and then 
all was suddenly quiet again. 

"There was a shed here," Father said. "And a place for horses, tn 
those years the runaways would have been brought to the shed, some 
of them even in barrels or crates. And that is how they'd get into the 
house and be cared for until they were well enough and ready enough 
to move farther along." 

"Runaways?" Aurora had asked, clutching Mabel's thigh. 

"That's right," Father said. Hector remembered his grinning trium- 
phantly at the wonderful ordeal he had put them all through to reveal 
this bit of secret family lore. 

"Mother, what's a runaway?" 

"A slave, idiot!" Henry Ford had said. 

"That's right," Father said. "Your wicked bigamist great-great- grand- 
father also ran a station on the underground railroad. Ex-slaves pre*. 

48 The Mind's Eye 

Robert Abel 

ably traveled from here with him into Maine. Some found jobs in the 
woods up there, cutting logs." 

"I don't understand railroad," Aurora said. 

"A secret railroad, yes, Moving slaves out of the South, up to Canada 
eventually. Through this house! In those secret passages you came 

"Now you know what it was like," Mabel said. "Don't you?" 
"T don't think any of us can know what it was like exactly," 
Father said. 

A man shape detached from the darkness of the porch then, drifted 
toward them and materialized. He was tall and black and dressed in a 
tuxedo and to Hector he seemed tired but a bit amused. "I see you 
found your way all right," he said to Mark. 

"Ah, yes, and thanks so much," Father said. "It's great you've kept 
everything intact." 

"Historical Register and all that," the man said. "Can't change too 
much, even if I want to. Was thinking of rebuilding the stable here, 
though. What do you think?" 

"Oh, 1 think you should," Father said. "Terrific idea." 

"Sell cider and souvenirs out of it," the man said. 

"Why not?" Father said. 

"Got some hot cider and doughnuts for your troops, too," the man 
said. "Come on back into the kitchen." He gestured grandly, broadly, 
theatrically. "It's all ready." 

"Thanks. Jake," Father said. 

"Anytime, Mr. Holt. No trouble at all. Sice to see kids learning some- 
thing. And if you woke any folks stumbling around in there, we'll just 
tell 'em it was some kind of poltergeist party. Folks love a haunted house." 

My stairs, at least. Hector thought now, will have a little light over them. 

When he returned home, Hector found a fax waiting for him from 
Ms. Ho. She had obviously been in a hurry when she composed it, be- 
cause halfway through the message she dropped English and scribbled 
along in Chinese. He struggled to read it, but his vocabulary just couldn't 
cope with the complexity of the message and he found it necessary to 
haul out his Chinese/English dictionary and turn to Appendix Seven, 
where Chinese words were listed according to two keys — a "radical," a 
small portion of the character indicating its most general frame of refer- 
ence; and the number of strokes it takes to write the character properly. 
Searching for new words was a chore Hector despised, but until he 

The MindS Eye 4,9 

Robert Abel 

developed the sheer brute memory necessary to handle even a bask 
Chinese vocabulary, he had no other recourse. He supposed he knew 
why Ms. Ho put him through this. Surely she overestimated his ability, 
for one thing; and for another, her using Chinese was something of a 
precaution against someone's casually stumbling across one of her faxes 
and learning the truth. 

"I must be so careful," she had once written to Hector. "That's the 
hardest thing. Naturally, I'm not a careful person. I play it pretty loose. 
I leave a trail of socks and lost sunglasses everywhere I go. I'm easily 
distracted. Becoming disciplined enough to do this thing I want to do 
and to protect the people I do it for — you can't imagine the effort, the 
double- checking, the self-override it requires of me. Can you? I have 
always thought you had more patience and a better ability to focus 
your attention. Vou don't hit your thumh the way I would driving nails. 
That's why I need you in this. So learn Chinese, You must. And use 
Appendix Seven." 

Once Hector got past the fog of unfamiliar characters, the message 
was clear enough: The two women were on their way from the West 
Coast. They would have been traveling quite a long time and would be 
exhausted and their travel and bribery money would surely have been 
used up, and therefore Ms. Ho was transferring what she could to the 
usual account. Hector should continue to take what he needed for the 
renovations and the expenses of getting them settled. By train from 
Seattle this lime. They had had a scare at the Canadian border and had 
almost bolted and been lost. Li Bao Ai — Love Treasure Ai — and Chen 
Hui Ming — Bright Shining Chen — were to arrive in Springfield in two 
days' time. They had an escort as far as Chicago. They were supposed to 
change trains in New York and that could present a problem, though 
Chen spoke a little English and therefore Hector should not panic if 
they did not show up as scheduled and lie had to return for the next 
train, or the next. He should introduce himself as Mr. Carpenter. 

Bad enough. Hector thought, the scrawled characters, but Ms. Ho's 
run-on style made it even more difficult to sort out her ideas. The simple 
message of maybe 200 words took Hector nearly three hours to deci- 
pher and translate. He made a few notes on details, then put Ms. Ho's 
fax into the flame of a burner on the kitchen stove. 

He hated doing this, as he hated destroying anything from her hand. 
He knew he had saved letters he should have burned, but they were 
precious to him, as she herself was, and he wondered if he would have 

50 The Mind's Eye 

Robert Abel 

persisted in this impossible pursuit of learning Chinese if it were not her 
voice he heard speaking when he looked the words up, if the whole 
study had not been eroticized by his memory of their long-ago connec- 
tion. Tayi ding skiyiaimo de fengziren, he thought: He really was a fool 
in love. Surely there was also some selfish hope of his that one of the 
women Ms. Ho kept sending through his hands would replace her? 
Perhaps all his "noble" actions could be reduced to that: He was a pris- 
oner of his memory, and the skill with which Ms. Ho made use of it. All 
right, Hector thought, I allow myself to be a fool. I accept my name. Mei 
guanxi. It doesn't matter. 1 know myself to be a fool. Ms. Ho's fool. 
Everyone's fool. Father was right all along. She ruined my life. The 
difference is — fm damned glad of it. 

Oh, yes, he reminded himself as the letter flared and he swung it 
into the sink, turn on the gas for them, show them the pilot lights. Pilot 
light, he thought. How to say that in Chinese? Pilot, feixing yuan, liter- 
ally means one who flies planes; flame was huo yan — person who flies 
plane flames. Obviously, it was not a phrase that was going to translate 
into anything but surreal nonsense. What did the Chinese call such an 
ordinary thing? The thought of all those words for all the things in this 
world made Hector despair of ever learning Chinese. 

The next two days Hector spent in the cottage finishing the renova- 
tions. He also juggled the money in the bank accounts he shared and 
didn't share with Ms. Ho's travel agency and real-estate-acquisitions 
firm. And then he looked in on his father, who barely seemed to know 
who he was, and who on the second day got out of bed only when the 
aides came by and lifted him and helped him down the hall to the bath- 
room. Hector left Shining Tides feeling ravaged. Maybe that heart 
attack he feared so much would not be such a terrible thing, he told 
himself, if it spared him an ending as unkempt and anticlimactic as his 
father's. And, he thought guiltily, meanly, angering himself with him- 
self, at about 200 bucks a day. 

Although he had done it often enough before, Hector drove on the 
third morning to the train station in Springfield. He drove what had 
been his father's Mercedes, a lime -yellow behemoth beginning to show 
its age, but with the room for passengers his own pickup didn't have. 
His paranoia kicked in big-time, bigger than ever. Every suit he saw 
made him flinch, and every uniform. Yes, but, he reminded himself. 
This is not when and where they get it. They get it when they're on the 
job and don't have papers. They get it when they need hospital care or 

The Mind's Eye 5} 

Robert Abel 

some se rvice or need to buy someth i ng on ciedit. They get it when they 
cross somebody with an altitude about "illegals." somebody scared about 
the scarcity of jobs. Somebody who believes it's possible fur another 
person on this planet to be "illegal." Ms. Ho herself refused to discuss 
how much trouble she would be in if the trail were traced back to her. 
"I got enou gh to worry about from Ch in a, " she had said. So Hector tried 
to calm himself down. 

They were easy to recognize when they stepped from the train. 
They looked as though they had been thrown into a pond and dragged 
out by the hair. They still wore that hair Chinese style, quite long, and 
the hair showed the effects of sleeping on train seats and elsewhere 
forever — pieces of lint and straw seemed to cling to it. They also wore 
Chinese-style black slacks and cotton jackets too light for the New En- 
gland fall. Their shoes were flat, pointed, black, embroidered like slip- 
pers. Their baggage was simple, plastic imitation leather, with imitation 
plaid sides, bidging and too heavy; and when they turned to face Hec- 
tor, their expressions were the expressions Hector found so devastating 
and thrilling: forlorn, wary, resigned, eager, almost crazy. 

"Ni men hao," he said. "Wo shi Ka Pen Ta. Wo ski ni men dexin xing dao. 
Qing rang wo na chunitnen dexingli." Hello. I'm Carpenter. I'm your new 
guide. Let me take your luggage. 

"Oh, thank you," the taller one said. "But we can help ourselves." 

"OK," Hector said. "Right this way." As he led them out, opening 
doors, he looked at everyone, every suit, every face. Once again, it was 
going to be OK. Yes, it was. Outside he unlocked the car doors and 
placed the luggage in the trunk. All clear, no problem. No one was rush- 
ing toward them. No cruiser was sliding in behind. What a beautiful fafl 
day it was! 

Ni men dou yi ding youyige chang chang de lu xing. Surely you've both 
had an awfully long trip. 

Yi ge xushiski, the smaller one said. She had a chin as pointed as a 
knife, a deep dimple under one cheek. 

Hector did not know the word xushishi, but assumed it meant some- 
thing like "ordeal." He promised the women a nice rest in half an hour. 
And something to eat. Of course they were hungry. 

In fact, they were too hungry to demur. The taller one volunteered 
it had been a while since they had "snacked." 

You'll be in this area awhile, I think. Hector said in Chinese. We'll 
have time to get to know one another, surely. Most important thing 

52 The Mind's Eye 

Robert Abel 

now is to rest and relax. 

"Will you teach us English?" the taller one asked. Her eyes were 
screaming with excitement, Hector thought. "I speak a little," she said. 

"I'm not a good teacher, but I'll try," Hector said. 

"We know," the woman said. "You are carpenter." 

He led them, stunned and disoriented, into the living room in the 
cottage, where they dropped their luggage. Then he gave them a quick 
tour of the rest of the house, showed them how to use the shower, and 
then showed them the hidden stairs to the secret room. They immedi- 
ately understood its necessity and its possible uses. There was food in 
the refrigerator and cupboards and tomorrow or whenever they were 
ready, he would come by and take them shopping. He wrote his num- 
ber on a piece of paper and stuck it to the refrigerator with a banana - 
shaped magnet. Oh, yes, he said. I'll show you how to turn the gas on 
and off. He showed them the tanks outdoors and how to screw the gas 
lines open; back inside, he lifted the cover to the stove and lit the pilot 
lights. What do you call these things in Chinese? he asked. 

Xiao hue, both women answered almost in synchrony. 

Little flame. Hector thought. How simple after all! Like these two 
women. Two little flames. Waiting. 

At home he found messages on his telephone answering machine. 
The first was from the director of Shining Tides, informing him that his 
father had died just that morning. The second was from Love Treasure 
and Bright Shining Chen, who must have dialed his number the minute 
he left the cottage door. They apologized for failing to thank him prop- 
erly, and could he forgive them? He called the women back at once. It's 
all right, he said. It's something I'm glad to do. I'm repaying a debt to an 
old friend. Now get some rest and I'll see you tomorrow. 

Mr. O'Connor at Shining Tides assured Hector that his father was be- 
ing taken care of according to the procedures they had already agreed upon. 
Dr. Scott had made the pronouncement an hour ago — by natural causes. 
Northampton Memorial Services was on the way. Hector could lie there, 
if he wished, to oversee the removal of the body. There was nothing in his 
notes, Mr. O'Connor said, about any spiritual accompaniment. 
"I'll take care of that," Hector said. "And I'll be right there." 
He sat by his father only a few moments before the men from the 
undertaker arrived. His father seemed almost not to exist, and he was 
transferred almost effortlessly to the gurney. As his father floated away. 
Hector feft an eerie lightness and exhilaration pushing aside his grief. 

The Mind's Eye S3 

Robert Abel 

His father's adventure had come to an end. The family's fate was on his 
own shoulders now, and quite possibly it was going to ruin and non- 
existence after all these years, except, that is, for the bigamous great- 
great-grandfather's side of the family. His father's secrets had long ago 
been buried when he ceased to exist as a person and became a body 
waiting for some relief from all its organic miseries. Everything was 
now consigned to Hector's memory. He wo u Id call brother and sister, of 
course, He would be chided for not keeping them up to date on Father's 
condition. Then he would fax Ms. Ho and tell her that her precious 
cargo had arrived, and was ready to begin another chapter in life. He 
was determined to write to her in Chinese. 

His father's body was placed inside the funeral van like a pile of 
rags. The doors were closed gently, but they rang like bells in Hector's 
mind. I wonder what would change, he thought, if we really knew the 
truth about each other? 

54 The Mind's Eye 

Of Roads and a Pasture: 

The Genesis of Two Poems by 
Robert Frost 


Note: The narrative-commentaries accompanying Frost's poems are 
excerpts from a book in progress scheduled for publication in 
the fall of 2000 by The New England Press. 


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. 
And sorry I could not travel both 
And be one traveler, long I stood 
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then look the other, as just as fair, 
And having perhaps the better claim. 
Because it was grassy and wanted wear; 
Though as for that the passing there 
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay 
In leaves no step had trodden black. 
Oh, I kept the first for another day! 
Yet knowing how way leads on to way, 
I doubted if 1 should ever come back. 

The Mind's Eye 55 

Lea Bertani Newman 

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — 
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference. 

This is Robert Frost's most quoted poem — and his most misunder- 
stood. It was intended as a gentle joke on a dear friend who had 
a habit of not being able to make up his mind. But the friend did 
not see the satire in it when he first read the poem — and neither do the 
subsequent host of readers who take the poem to be a straightforward 
call to follow the road less traveled. 

During the years Frost spent in England, he developed a close friend- 
ship with Edward Thomas, a fellow writer with whom he shared an 
interest in botanizing (Thompson Early 441, 452-67; Thompson Tri- 
umph 87-88). They took long walks together, Thomas leading the way 
through his native Gloucestershire countryside in search of rare plants. 
Regardless of how successful their expeditions were, he would inevita- 
bly regret not having taken another path where the finds might have 
been richer. Alter one fruitful excursion. Frost said to him, "No matter 
which road yon take, you'll always sigh, and wish you'd taken another" 
(Thompson Triumph 88). 

This idea, even to the sigh, became the nucleus of one stanza of "The 
Road Not Taken," written, as Frost recalled it, "while I was sitting on a 
sofa in the middle of England" in 1914 (Thompson Triumph 546). He 
did not complete the poem until the following year, after he and his 
family had returned to the United States and were living in New Hamp- 
shire (Angyal 77, 99; Cook "Frost" 65). Thomas' letters to Frost in 191 5 
were more indecisive than ever, struggling with the larger issue of 
whether or not Thomas should enlist in the war against Germany. Frost, 
hoping to put a lighter spin on his friend's vacillations, mailed a copy of 
the poem to him, but Thomas assumed the "T" in the poem was Frost, as 
many readers after him have done, and did not recognize himself as its 
target (Thompson Letters xv). In response to Frost's explanation, Thomas 
wrote, "1 doubt if you can get anyone to see the fun of the thing with- 
out showing them and advising them "(Thompson Triumph 89). In Sep- 
tember 1915, Frost admitted as much in a letter to Louis Untermeyer, 

56 The Mind's Eye 

Lea Bertani Newman 

who had written some parodies of Frost: "The best of your parody of 
me was that it left me in no doubt as to where I was hit. I'll bet not half 
a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road 
Not Taken" (Untermeyer 14). 

However, this poem is more than merely a parody. Crossroads and 
the dilemma they pose have long been a part of literary tradition, mark- 
edly in the works of some of Frost's favorite writers— Virgil, Emily 
Dickinson, William James, Longfellow, Emerson and Thoreau (Cramer 
45-46). Frost's sensitivity to the crossroads metaphor is clear in the fol- 
lowing observation recorded in a letter to Susan Hayes WaTd in 19 1 2! 

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have 
walked several times this winter without meeting or over- 
taking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. 
The practically unbroken condition of both for several days 
after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much traveled. 
(Sergeant 87) 

Written in Plymouth, New Hampshire, six months before Frost's depar- 
ture for England, this passage also establishes a New England source 
that predates his walking experiences with Thomas. 

Except lor a warning to his readers "to be carelul . . - it's a tricky 
poem" (Cook Voice 112), Frost had little more to say about the meaning 
of "The Road Not Taken," allowing his readers free play with whatever 
they chose to find in it. He did, however, alert them to its form, point- 
ing out. "You can go along over these rhymes just as if you didn't know 
that they were there." This was a poem "that talks past the rhymes," he 
said, and he took it. as a compliment when his readers told him they 
could hear him talking in it (Cook Voice 123). 

The Mind's Bye 57 

Lea Bertani Newman 


I'm going out to clean the pasture spring; 
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away 
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may}; 
I sha'n't be gone long. — You come too. 

I'm going out to fetch the little calf 
That's standing by the mother. It's so young 
It totters when she licks it with her tongue. 
I sha'n't be gone long. — You come too. 

or the nine years that Robert Frost and his family lived on their 

farm in Derry, New Hampshire, the view looking west from the 

JL. farge bay window at the front of the house was of two small 
pastures (Cramer 10). One spring evening in 1905, Frost took a walk 
over those fields with his wife, Elinor, and their six-year-old daughter, 
Lesley. According to the notebook Lesley kept as a child, she and her 
mother picked apple and strawberry blossoms while her father went 
down to the southwest corner of the big cow pasture to check on how 
much water was in the spring (Lesley Frost 37). Five years later. Frost 
used a walk to the spiing in a cow pasture as the centerpiece of his 
poem "The Pasture." The experience was still a favorite memory 30 
years after he wrote about it. In 1940 he reminisced, "I never had a 
greater pleasure than coming on a neglected spring in a pasture in the 
woods" (Smythe 56). 

When Frost chose to publish this poem in 1914 as a prologue to his 
second book. North of Boston, he clearly meant the "you" in " Vou come 
too" to mean the reader. And in his first collected edition, as in those 
that have followed, it has remained an invitation to the reader to join 
Frost in his poetic explorations of the New England countryside, with 
its pasture springs and cows and calves. 

Surprising, then, is Frost's assertion that "The Pasture" is a love poem, 
suggesting that the original "you" was his wife. He went on to explain: 
It is "a poem about love that's new in treatment and effect. You won't 

58 The Mind's Eye 

Lea Bertani Newman 

find anything in the range of English poetry just like that" (Richards 
20). The unique situation in the poem has an intensely personal con- 
nection with the long-standing tempestuous relationship between Frost 
and Elinor (Thompson Early 173-89, 310-12; Kalz 15-25, 48-50). He 
appears to have had misgivings about Elinor's love since their courtship 
days, when she was reluctant to leave Lawrence University to accept 
his proposal of marriage. The differences between them and the extent 
of his doubts and anger are revealed in a dreamlike incident Lesley 
remembered from when she was seven: One night her father woke her 
up, revolver in hand, to ask her to choose between her mother and 
him, because one of them would be dead by morning (Thompson 308). 
However, Frost's more usual response when his frustrations over- 
whelmed him was to storm out of the house for long walks alone in the 
woods, often not returning until alter dark. The gentle invitation in the 
poem asking Elinor to join him on his walk is in striking contrast to the 
rejection he was expressing every time he walked away from her. 
The renewals associated with springtime — the reinvigorated pasture 
spring, the newborn calf — contribute to the poem's plea for another 
beginning, a rebirth of their togetherness. 

Another claim Frost made for this poem was that it could be used "to 
express the opposite of confusion." He admitted that "confusion" was a 
word he "aiways had an interest in." He thought watching "the undoudiness 
displace the cloudiness" in the spring could "be taken as a figure of 
speech" for his goal of seeing "clarity come out of . . . confusion" 
(Smythe 56-57). The passage "And wait to watch the water ciear" from 
the first verse became the epigraph for his last book of poems, In the 
Clearing, published in 1962, the year before he died. At 87, he was still 
seeking an unclouded vision. 

The Mind's Eye 59 

Lea Bertani Newman 

Works Cited 

Angyal, Andrew J. "Robert Frost's Poetry Before 191 3, A Check List." 
Proof 5, The Yearbook of American Bibliographical and Textual Studies 

Cook, Reginald L, "Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems." American 

Literature March 1956. 

. Robert Frost: A Living Voice. Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 1974. 

Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to 

the Poet's Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, NC: 

McFarland, 1996. 
Frost, Lesley. New Hampshire's Child: The Deny Journals of Lesley Frost. Ed. 

Lawrance Thompson and Arnold Grade. Albany: Slate U of New 

York P, 1969. 

Frost, Robert. "The Pasture" in North of Boston. New York: Holt, 1914. 

. "The Road Not Taken" uiMountain Interval. New York: Holt, 1916. 

Kate, Sandra Lee. Elinor Frost: A Poet's Wife. Westfield, MA: Westfield 

State College, 1988. 
Richards, E. A. "Two Memoirs of Frost." Touchstone March 1 945. 
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. The Trial by Existence. New York: Holt, 1960. 
Smythe, Daniel. Robert Frost Speaks. New York: Twayne, 1 964. 
Thompson, Lawtance. Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1814-191?, New York: 

Holt, 1970. 

. Robert Frost: The Yearsof Triumph. 1915-1938. New York: Holt, 1 976. 

, ed, Selected Letters of Robert Frost. New York: Ho!t, 1964. 

Untermeyer, Louis. The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer New 
York: Holt, 1963. 

60 The Mind's Eye 


To the Editor: 

Thanks so much for sending me the two issues of The Mind's Eye, just 
received. I'm really very impressed by both the contents and the presen- 
tations in these journals, The range and variety are also impressive. 

It's a credit to your college and also puts you one up on the Wil- 
liams College establishment — 1 don't think it's ever tried anything so 

I did not see a subscription blank, but sign me up if possible and I 
will send in a check. 

James MacGregor Burns 
Williamstown, MA 

To the Editor: 

Thank you for TheMind'sEye [Spring 1993] — a publication that does 
honor to MCLA. The article on M.P.'s [Maurice Prendergast's] late work 
was a surprise and a delight, also a fine example of scholarship. 

You won't mind if I add an irrelevant hut also irreverent side reac- 
tion? For me, M.P. was a fine artist in his youth, notably late 1 890s and 
1900s/1910s — and then went gradually downhill creatively. Also, his 
fine work is in watercolors. I never have "bought" his oils. So the con- 
nection for them (with dance, etc.) stands; but I wonder what Isadora 
would have thought of her performance in M.P.'s versions! 

Forgive me. 

Lane Faison 
Williamstown, MA 

Note: Letters and comments are welcome. Address them to The Editor, 
TheMind'sEye, Campus Box 91 32, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 
375 Church Street, North Adams, MA 01 247 

TheMind'sEye 61 


Robert Abel has published three collections of stories and. three nov- 
els. Ghost Traps won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 
1989. His most recent novel. Riding a Tiger, was published last January 
by Asia 2000 in Hong Kong. Abel has taught writing and American lit- 
erature in China on three occasions, and recently worked as a specialist 
for the United States Information Agency, giving lectures and work- 
shops to English teachers in Southeast Asia on the characteristics of lit- 
erary English and perpetual paradoxes in American literature. He lives 
in North Hadley. 

Rosanne Fleszar Denhard teaches literature and composition at Mas- 
sachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where she has been a part-time mem- 
ber of the English and Communications department since 1 996. Denhard's 
work in literary studies centers on the relationship between literary texts 
and history, with primary focus on medieval and Renaissance England. In 
1999 she received departmental recognition for innovation in teaching, 

Peter Filkins teaches literature and writing at Simon's Rock College of 
Bard. His book of poems. What She Knew, was published in 1 998 by Or- 
chises Press. He is the translator of Ingeborg Bachmamr's collected po- 
ems. Songs in Flight, and his translation of two novels by Bachmann has 
just been published by Northwestern University Press. Filkins has also 
translated a novel by Alois Hotschnig titled Leonardo's Hands, published 
by the University of Nebraska Press. His writing has appeared in numer- 
ous journals, including Partisan Review, The New Republic and Poetry. Filkins 
previously taught at Massachu setts College of Liberal Arts. 

Elizabeth Lambert's articles on Virginia Woolf and science have ap- 
peared in several publications, including Twentieth Century Literature. 
Formerly a science writer for the University of Wisconsin -Madison, she 
now teaches literature and film at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. 
An associate professor in the English and Communications department, 
she has recently participated in independent film productions. 

62 The Mind's Eye 

Lea Bertani Newman is professor emerita of English at Massachu- 
setts College of Liberal Arts. She has published two books and numer- 
ous essays on 19th-century American literature. As past president of 
the Hawthorne Society and the Melville Society, she remains active in 
both organizations. Newman's current project, a guide to the New En- 
gland poetry of Robert Frost for the general reader, grew out of her 
experiences in the classroom with non-English majors who responded 
enthusiastically to Frost's poetry. 

Cynthia Richardson has produced six seasons of reviews of 
Williamsto wn Theatre Festival productions for h er local paper. The Chatham 
Courier, and a scholarly article on The Canterbury Tales for Texas Studies in 
Literature and Language. Her poems have appeared in The Berkshire Review 
and The Amherst Review, and a poem will soon appear in Threepenny Re- 
view. She is currently working on a book titled Only You Can Reform Educa- 
tion: A Guerrilla Manual for Parents. For 2i years she taught literature and 
creative writing in high schools and community colleges. 

Rosemary Starace, a writer and visual artist living in Pittsfield, writes: 
"I have an odd but enduring interest in the symbolic resonances of circles, 
egg shapes and round vessels — both my artwork and my writing are 
riddled with them," She is also curious about the nature of place and 
the role of the artist in the local community. Starace has written a num- 
ber of articles and essays on these subjects. One of her poems recently 
appeared in The Berkshire Review. Her artwork is currently shown at 
Nuovo Gallery in Lenox. 

The Mind's Eye 63 

Mind's Eye 

Writer's Guidelines 

While emphasizing articles of scholarly merit. The Mind's Eye focuses on a general 
communication of ideas of interest to a liberal arts college. We welcome expository 
essays as well as fiction, poetry and art from faculty and guest contributors. We 
publish twice a year. The deadline for the Fall issue is July 15. Deadline for the 
Spring issue Is January 15. 

Submissions should adhere to these guidelines: 

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2. We will consider simultaneous submissions under the provision lhat the author 
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3. If you wish your manuscript and disk returned, please enclose a return-self- 
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While we make every attempt to safeguard your manuscript and disk, we cannot be 
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4. Use MLA or APA style, with in-text references, as appropriate to the content and 
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The Mind's Eye 
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Campus Box 9132 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts 
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